Student number caps will hurt everyone, not just universities

Restricting university entry will make widening participation and levelling-up all the harder, says Steve West

May 9, 2022
Cows shut out by a gate, symbolising university access
Source: iStock

The government’s proposals to reintroduce student number caps in England or to impose minimum entry requirements have long been trailed, but universities’ scepticism remains undiminished by reflection.

Universities UK has just submitted its response to the government’s consultation on higher education reform. Our strong opposition to student number caps and our reservations about the practicalities of minimum entry requirements might seem predictable – and yes, these measures would have a negative financial impact on many institutions. But financial sustainability is only one part of the reasoning behind the positions we have set out.

We are opposing a student number cap because we know it will, in effect, serve as a cap on aspiration, hurting those from disadvantaged backgrounds the most, crushing their hopes and dreams. As well as limiting students’ freedom of choice by creating an inevitable reduction in courses – for the breadth and diversity of which the UK is famous – a cap will be hugely limiting to those who cannot afford to move away from their home towns for university.

These students will not feel able to apply to as many universities as other applicants, and so will stand less chance of getting in. This also means they risk choosing a path that isn’t right for them and that is more likely to result in poor employment outcomes.

Such limitations mean that a student number cap carries a real risk of entrenching disadvantage, making it completely unhelpful to the government’s own levelling-up agenda. Limiting access to education will limit the success of the lifelong loan entitlement by making it harder for people to upskill. We also know that strategically valuable skills can change very rapidly. Hence, diversity in the breadth of courses offered prevents future skills shortages.

The UK still needs more graduates, not fewer. There were 1 million more graduate vacancies than graduates in 2022, so narrowing our skills base by restricting access to university is an illogical move. Those who might need further persuading that student number caps are not in anyone’s interest need only look at the impact of the 2011 number cap on nursing and allied health students, which contributed to the chronic shortages in nursing that we are still suffering from today. This will take years to resolve and will add to the pressures in our health and care services.

UUK is also highlighting the practical issues with the government’s proposals on minimum entry requirements (a pass in GCSE English and mathematics, in the government’s main option). The government has already highlighted that several exceptions to this policy would be required – it would not apply to mature students looking to retrain, for example. But there are many other hurdles to overcome to ensure that this policy does not increase inequalities.

Educational opportunity is not spread evenly across England, and using a minimum entry requirement bluntly would worsen this, preventing universities from identifying those with the potential to succeed by taking account of their full circumstances. It is not the case that students who come in with low grades come out with poor degrees. Universities have worked hard to widen access to university, and widening participation data from the Office for Students show that students who entered higher education with the lowest reported A-level results had continuation rates higher than the sector average. We must continue to keep opportunities open to all with the potential to succeed at university. Bluntly, as a country, we need the widest talent pool possible to be able to compete globally.

And, of course, the universities most affected by minimum entry requirements would be those that recruit high proportions of students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Some of these universities are in the government’s priority areas for levelling-up. Others are in boroughs with low gross value added to the economy, such as Wolverhampton, Middlesbrough and Bolton. Reduced student numbers could restrict their ability to invest locally and contribute to levelling-up. Over time, these financial consequences could lead to greater “cold spots” in access to higher education, something we all want to avoid.

We agree with the government’s view that geography must not limit opportunity, and we are committed to working together to ensure that this is never case. We are highlighting these issues in our response because they are bound to have a significant impact on students, universities, business and society for years to come.

The addition of a further three-year freeze in tuition fees, in addition to the freeze over the past four years, has not been up for consultation, so it is essential that our voices are heard on these major reforms.

With the right policies in place, universities can help collectively build a better and fairer future. We will do everything we can to work with the government to make that happen. But we need a sustainable financial model that will support the investment that is required.

Steve West is president of Universities UK and vice-chancellor of the University of the West of England.

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Reader's comments (1)

The so-called gap in the number of graduates is a result of many jobs now requiring higher qualifications because the education system is not what it was. What is actually needed is a range of skills that are not really anything to do with academic work. Hence, they should not be the responsibility of universities. The interest in more "practical" work and "authentic" elements even in the Russell Group indicates that university is no longer a place led by academic values. Limiting numbers whilst providing an alternative route with which many students will actually be happier, will help in reality. I cannot see the point of the situation that I observed in my first academic job, where a graduate served me at the till in the local DIY store as (unlike then) they now will be the bearer of considerable debt.

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