Reform chills are multiplying

A variety of institutions are feeling exposed in the shifting landscape emerging from the blizzard of coalition changes

January 24, 2013

As individual institutions, they have known their fate for months.

But for the first time last week, the higher education sector as a whole discovered how the government’s experiment with a new competitive landscape, coupled with the unpredictable impact of higher fees, has panned out.

As the UK shivered under a blanket of snow, the terrain that emerged had as many ups and downs as a minor ski resort.

Take London Metropolitan University. Universities and Colleges Admissions Service data indicate that its undergraduate intake has fallen by 3,130, or 43 per cent.

Although the scale of the fall is largely down to a significant bulge in recruitment in 2011-12, the drop comes on top of London Met’s problems with the UK Border Agency which, as we report this week, could contribute to the university losing £37 million.

For this most politically sensitive of universities, which perhaps has done more than any other to play ball with the government’s reforms, the news marks a bitter winter indeed.

And London Met is not alone in battling a chill wind.

The government’s aim in lifting the recruitment cap on students with A levels of AAB or better was to allow the “best” institutions to expand. This was widely interpreted as being targeted at the Russell Group, membership of which has become something of a holy grail.

Yet Ucas maps some bumpy terrain, with undeniably “elite” institutions such as Imperial College London recording a 6 per cent drop in students, and the universities of Liverpool and Southampton suffering 10 and 13 per cent falls, respectively.

There are “winners”, too - the University of Bristol and University College London both significantly expanded their intake this year - but across the piece the Russell Group experience mirrors that of other mission groups in being as uneven as an off-piste run.

Perhaps this is what the government wanted, but those that suffer big dips this year will slalom into serious financial trouble if they are not able to change direction next year.

The decision to lower the AAB threshold to ABB will help, as will the introduction of a 3 per cent margin before over-recruitment fines are applied (allowing for bolder tactics as institutions decide when to make offers).

For staff on the ground, who may be less concerned than their managers with balancing the books, it is also worth bearing in mind that endless expansion is not necessarily a good thing - an attitude taken by the universities of Oxford and Cambridge.

One Times Higher Education reader writes on our website: “While wishing Bristol and [its] new students all the best, I rather doubt that any institution is capable of managing quite such a rapid rise in numbers without a drop in the quality of education provided.

“On the other hand, my department (in one of the Russell Group’s ‘losers’) has seen a modest drop in student numbers more than offset financially by the increase in per capita income, and this is enabling us to get tutorial group sizes down to a more sensible level.”

In the end it’s a balancing act but, as this year’s volatility shows, the pace and scale of reform has forced all to bypass the nursery slopes and risk their necks on the black run.

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