Competition in undergraduate higher education begins in earnest this year. The higher tuition fee cap didn’t start it. Institutions moved their prices more or less in tandem when the cap was raised in 2012. But now student number controls are coming off. For the next academic year there are no limits on how many students can enter higher education in total, or at any one institution. So far there are minor signs of increased competition as a result – for example, the number of unconditional offers made to applicants has shot up, as institutions try to grab students early in the admissions process. But the full extent of the impact of competition for students has yet to be felt.
As a higher education landscape without student number controls takes shape, what changes might we expect? The first is even greater competition for entrants – not only at the beginning of courses but over their duration. With no numbers cap in place to deter them, why wouldn’t institutions compete for the most talented first years attending their rivals? In the old landscape, institutions couldn’t take on more students during their courses, because they recruited up to the limit for every cohort. Those limits will no longer exist. And sometimes the most effective way for an institution to bid for growth will be to poach students from another institution.
There will be practical limits to how much of this institutions can do. The first university to try it will raise hackles across the sector. And there are genuine reasons to worry about it happening. For example, it is the institutions that struggle to recruit first year students in the new competitive environment that might also be most vulnerable to losing students at the end of the year. Institutions under pressure could very quickly lose their viability.
However, from the students’ perspective, such competition will open up a new dimension for choice, as well as aspiration. If you weren’t confident enough after school to apply for the most selective universities, or didn’t get in, and then went on to have a successful first year at another institution, wouldn’t you welcome a second chance? And a selective university that is struggling to increase the proportion of its student body that comes from disadvantaged backgrounds might do better on this measure if it could recruit students who had already spent a successful year of study somewhere else.
The change that may complement this kind of competition is to the admissions process. For the moment, universities continue to use Ucas for undergraduate admissions. It may be only a matter of time before someone leaves the club. The technology is available for any individual institution to run the process just as quickly without Ucas. And the advantages of admitting independently are huge: prospective undergraduates will be able to apply to such an institution in addition to the five they can apply to through Ucas. Universities can thereby get a jump on the admissions cycle used by everyone else, accessing the applicants they most crave before others do so. Or they could move in the other direction, encouraging applicants to approach them after they have obtained their qualifications.
The more contextual approach to admissions that institutions will be able to take in this new world may also enable better matching between students and the institution and course that will provide them with the best experience. Many institutions have already found that building more outreach into their admissions process helps them to improve fair access. Bypassing Ucas in order to handle admissions differently might be the next step in that strategy.
Some of the effects of the new system may not be so benign. Liam Byrne, the shadow universities minister, has warned that “an ethos of dog eat dog” is bad for the sector. I take a much more positive view. For the moment, though, it’s too early to say who is right. It’s only as student number controls come off this year that we will really be able to judge the difference. But one thing is for sure: the biggest changes in competition lie ahead of us.
Emran Mian is director of the Social Market Foundation thinktank.