Graeme Wise is a Contributing Editor to Wonkhe.

The recent Higher Education Strategic Planners’ Association Conference, held at the University of Birmingham, saw planning professionals from across the sector wrestling with the challenges expected for this decade. This included a serious attempt, in several sessions, to consider the implications of rising demand for higher education over that time period. This is a personal reflection on the challenges involved and a possible way to navigate them with new policy options.

There is a clear consensus on the likely scale of the additional demand – with colleagues at dataHE projecting on this site that by 2030 there may be 100,000 more English 18-year-olds seeking higher education places, and HEPI suggesting an overall demand of 300,000 more places in the system by 2030 is quite plausible. But “seeking” is not the same as “finding” – whether or not there is enough supply of opportunities to meet the demand is a matter for both higher education institutions and also for government.

The December 2019 election has radically changed the political landscape, and a new financial policy is expected to be set in the March budget. Against this backdrop, those in government will need to make decisions about how to respond to the Augar report. This seems like a sensible moment to take stock of the options (in England) for responding to the demand challenge.

Short supply – a political hazard

It is best to call it a “demand challenge” and not an “expansion challenge”, for actual expansion in practice is not guaranteed. Commentators have divergent views on the likelihood of student number controls being re-imposed. Nick Hillman, for instance, has recently written that he wouldn’t bet against it. But Mark Corver has said (most recently at a session of the HESPA conference which I chaired) that the trend of higher university entry rates is strong, echoes previous educational expansions, and that aiming for lower proportions of graduates in the workforce seems unlikely to be a long-term winner for economic competitiveness. He also observes that that choice – whether to go to university, and if so where and what to study – is politically hard to take away, once granted. Especially as proportion of 18 year olds whose parents went to university climbs through the 2020s.

The recent appointment of Alison Wolf to the Prime Minister’s Policy Unit might seem to suggest number controls will be back on the agenda (she wrote as recently as November last year that the current deregulated approach is “crazy”). On the other hand, if ministers are seen to intervene with active policy to constrain places, they risk taking the blame from people who don’t get in, and their families. This becomes a more acute political problem in some quarters as the OfS sets and enforces more testing targets on access and participation of students from under-represented groups. There may be advantages for politicians in being able to say they have imposed no artificial limits and that if some people (especially, frankly, middle-class people) can’t get places it is simply because universities have chosen not to make enough places available.

Yes or no to SNCs – two scenarios

If student number controls return in a high-demand landscape, this would immediately dampen many of the competition effects we have witnessed (though Iain Mansfield has proposed one option to allow continued, moderated dynamism). In this way, number controls might mitigate negative impacts on the student experience, staff wellbeing, and community relations in high-expansion contexts, and reduce the risk of institutional failure in contraction contexts, all of which would be welcome. In addition, the current intensity of marketing activity would diminish, and the debate about unconditional offers transforms if a large portion of the applicant field already have their grades but just didn’t get a place in the previous cycle.

However, the stark reality is that an ever-increasing number of applicants simply would not get into higher education, creating a growing pool of disappointed people. The problem becomes worse if the Augar recommendation to cut fee caps is taken up (“you know this thing you can’t have – we are making it 20% cheaper for the people who do have it – isn’t that great!”). If the labour market remains buoyant with high employment rates, and everyone affected quickly gets well-paid jobs, they may not be disappointed for long; if not, there may be serious political trouble ahead.

If student number controls are left off in a high-demand landscape, the sector would not behave uniformly, and some new behaviours might be observed. Some universities will decide not to expand beyond a certain point in a rising demand climate, either for strategic reasons, or just for sheer lack of physical capacity. The implication of this is that other institutions might try to double or triple in size, perhaps using very different management approaches, more vocationally-oriented provision, more distance and/or blended learning modes of delivery – with commensurate and connected implications for the role of research (relatively unimportant to turnover) and workforce planning (more teaching-focused, flexible, and scalable). This would not be out of line with some institutions’ current trajectories, as things stand already.

Another set of institutions might consider merging to form teaching and research mega-universities, or geographically dispersed network-universities, both of which remain curiously absent in Britain despite featuring successfully in many other advanced higher education systems. The costs would be both financial and human. The former come entailed in corporate and estates restructuring processes, and of course students will be footing these bills. The latter come in the form of the disruption and disjointed learning experiences that are hard to avoid when institutions go through such radical transformations, and the intense demands and stressful conditions they impose on academic and professional staff.

An alternative approach

Re-imposing an overall student number limit as a blanket measure in a high-demand environment would invite more and worse problems, the worst being the risk of systematically under-educating a large section of the population. But complete deregulation has already caused a lot of problems, and more broadly the public finance and value-for-money questions being asked about higher education will not simply disappear.

How to square this circle?

It would be a fundamental mistake to consider student number controls in relation to all undergraduate-level provision as if it were – or should be – a homogenous mass. An alternative approach might look like a version of this:

  1. Basic principle – everyone who applies can have a place on a course if an institution chooses to admit them (no overall student number control)
  2. A policy innovation – apply number controls to full-time student enrolments with ‘honours degree’ as the qualification aim, set initially at their current level; for these controlled numbers consider implementing Mansfield’s ‘cap and trade’ model; for other undergraduate courses, allow unrestricted numbers
  3. Also allow unlimited numbers for part-time level 6, to allow expansion of degrees by distance learning and an unrestricted ‘upgrade’ route for students completing diplomas at level 5 with strong results (however see point 4)
  4. Harmonise the terms of repayment for student loans for any study at level 6 to match those for postgraduate masters loans, transferring more of the overall cost to honours graduates with higher earnings, without reducing the benefits for those taking higher technical courses or those honours graduates who (for whatever reason) have really low lifetime earnings; for the avoidance of doubt, this would not apply to the first two years of study on a typical full-time degree, only the loans associated with the third year
  5. Require OfS to concentrate fair access targets primarily on directly-enrolled honours degree provision, ensuring these limited-supply opportunities are not captured by advantaged social groups
  6. Continue to freeze all fee caps, but otherwise leave them unchanged

The policy configuration creates a set of incentives for expansion of provision at levels 4 and 5, and the direction of student recruitment efforts into this area, where currently it is strongly in institutions’ interests to concentrate on full-length degrees. It also creates incentives for students to very carefully consider the relative value of progressing to level 6, in their own circumstances, and over time creates more diverse routes to achieving level 6.

All future increased demand should be met first at levels 4 and 5; alignment to labour market needs would be better and the public cost of each student will be much lower. Institutions would have strong incentives to innovate and offer more higher technical education newly developed for the purpose – a lot of this provision might come from the further education sector, from HEIs that choose to strategically realign, from new providers, or from new cross-sector partnerships. Institutions that wish to focus on a very traditional three-year degree offer cannot greatly expand, but nor do they lose students or income in absolute terms (indeed, their student numbers today are protected and stabilised). Over time the HE sector as a whole becomes much larger but also much more diverse by provision types and institutional forms.

In principle, those with higher level 3 tariffs would generally flow into the number-controlled honours degree space and those with lower tariffs into the deregulated level four and five space, but crucially this tariff line would not be absolute and determined at the centre (contra the “three Ds” proposal); it would vary dynamically across institutions and between cohorts.

Breaking the monolith

A plan like this will be inherently controversial because it requires us to break up the monolith of undergraduate education, at the programme structure level, for funding and fair access purposes. The main critique would be that it creates a two-tier system, but this is wrong – re-imposing general number controls would create the starkest two-tier system: “in” versus “out”. Instead this envisages a multi-tier system, for as many people as we can include. The coming tidal wave of demand makes this not only possible, but a necessity if we are to avoid locking out talent. Radical expansion of higher education in society is a realistic prize, if we accept that it must be a truly diverse system, better aligned to real-world needs and expectations.

6 responses to “A plan to expand and diversify English higher education through the 2020s

  1. This is properly interesting and properly different, thank you. Irrespective of whether I agree with you or not, it’s genuinely welcome and refreshing to have some new and innovative thinking. My question really is about point 4 above. This would seem to default to an encouragement to quit at level 5 unless you’re either (a) going into a well-paid job, or (b) stinking rich to start with. If you need L6 qualified health professionals – how would you incentivise them to stay on? I suspect I am missing something because the rest of it is so coherent, and this particular proposal jarred

  2. To some degree we have started taking this approach with what I believe is a largely vocational subject. We will revalidate to expand levels 4 and 5 using an ‘apprenticeship’ type approach. In this we envisage exit points at levels 4 and 5 for the majority of students, reserving level 6 for a small, select number based upon the limited availability of jobs in the sector that need a degree.This allows potential expansion – the area has viability concerns in the medium to long-term unless we do this- where there is market demand and increased potential to recruit. Be interesting to see how this goes.

  3. I agree with Jon, I really like the originality of this proposal and overall to me it seems great. I wonder however if you would need to curtail institutions’ autonomy in assessment and grading to make the “unrestricted progression to level 6 for those with strong results at level 5” work? Otherwise you will create an incentive for institutions to mark very gently at level 5 and let everybody through past the number controls.

  4. I suspect the “multi-tier” system would rapidly become two-tier whether you like it or not.


    “Require OfS to concentrate fair access targets primarily on directly-enrolled honours degree provision, ensuring these limited-supply opportunities are not captured by advantaged social groups”.

    How would this be done? Or is the first clause in this sentence meant to bring about the outcome in the second clause? How would this be different from what is being done now?

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