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March 1, 2012

Many university leaders have been voicing their dissatisfaction with the coalition's higher education policy for some time - but Martin Hall, the University of Salford's vice-chancellor, has hit upon a novel method of critique: the hypothetical stories of three aspiring university students. His analysis focuses on the consequences for students of the AAB policy - which allows universities unlimited recruitment of students with A-level grades of AAB or better - and the fines institutions face if they over-recruit non-AAB students.

"Graham, Amina and Rosemary go to a good sixth-form college in a nice town in the middle of Britain," Professor Hall writes on his Vice-chancellor's blog. "They've all worked hard...Amina and Graham both expect to do well in their A levels this year, Rosemary has more vocational instincts...They complete their...applications and...accept two offers apiece. Graham and Amina want to go to well-rated universities that have lots of applicants who expect to get at least two As and a B in their final exams. Rosemary chooses two universities that specialise in her chosen vocational subject."

Professor Hall writes that Graham misses out on his target by one grade. Despite doing well, he is rejected by both universities. "They explain that they would have liked to take him but, with his one A and two B grades, he now falls inside their restricted allocation of places," he writes. "If they were to accept him, they [would] be fined heavily.

"Graham and his parents spend the next week trawling the websites of universities that still have places available. Many of these places are for academic programmes that Graham does not want to study, in places where he does not want to live.. there's nothing for him. [Universities] are now full and, if they were to take him, they would be heavily fined by Hefce [the Higher Education Funding Council for England]."

Without overt comment, Professor Hall highlights the stumbling blocks that students face when trying to get into university. Through Graham's eyes, we see that people "with high A-level results that are not quite high enough [have] been caught between the unrestricted places available for everyone who gets at least two As and a B, and the strictly limited number of places available for everyone else".

Professor Hall notes that contrary to predictions, applications for 2012 were not significantly lower than those for 2011, and therefore "competition for university places was just as fierce this year as ever before". And he argues that recent policy developments that promised to put students first - the government's White Paper, following on from the Browne Review - have not done so.

"[Graham] discovers that the government wants to [rebalance] the economy and will depend on more and more highly qualified people to do so," Professor Hall concludes. "Many other governments - in fact, almost all other governments - believe that investing in more university students is vital if their countries are to grow in future years.

"Graham is still bewildered. How come none of this applies to him? Amina and Rosemary come back home for Christmas excited by student life. Graham keeps wondering, why not me?"

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