The opprobrium from parts of the sector and the Westminster Village as a result of David Willetts (either intentionally or having been forced by a leak) exploring the idea of off-quota places meant that the idea was quickly watered-down, to only include business and charity-sponsored off-quota places.
Nevertheless, the Government is clearly looking for more ways to open up the student numbers cap, but in a way that would result in evolutionary rather than revolutionary change. Cameron insider Benedict Brogan in his Telegraph Blog suggested that the White Paper will include ways to let universities recruit more AAB students outside of their cap, whilst also allowing cheaper charging courses to expand outside of student number controls. William Cullerne Browne from Research Fortnight looked at this in more detail here.
Collectively, these ideas could help the government with two of its ambitions. a) For more people to go to university; and b) to add some market forces within a restrictive system of student number controls. These policies would also be in keeping with an incremental approach to opening up student numbers as the quota system would still remain largely intact. This is important because the alternative ‘big bang’ approach – i.e. to all remove quotas – could undermine the viability of some institutions in the short-term. The consequence for affected students and staff, as well as the damage to regional economies, especially in areas where their university is the dominant economic driver, is not worth the gamble. Hence the need for incremental change.
What hasn’t been explored is the wider effect these policies could have on the sector and students. If universities were able to quickly expand through additional charity and business off-quota sponsorships, more AABs, or sub £6k courses;how would this affect institutions and higher education policy more broadly?
Below are a few potential issues that have come to my mind (and I am certain that there are many more). I would welcome your feedback on other ways this policy could potentially affect universities in the comments below.
Would quick expansion encourage universities to maximise short-term profit at the expense of the student experience? Do universities have the capacity in terms of staff and facilities, or student support and housing? If not then students will be paying a high price for a sub-optimal experience – potentially one that is less advantageous to them than if they had attended an institution working within its number cap.
Off-quota and AAB expansion would take place in institutions with the strongest brand, which is not necessarily the same as the best offer in terms of teaching and learning or the student experience, particularly for students from less privileged backgrounds. Were there to be significant additional flowing into the traditional elite this would allow them to establish a major income gap with the rest of the sector, without this necessarily being based on performance. Will this be prevented by the new Key Information Sets, or will they take time be embedded in the culture of the application cycle before they become relevant to potential students?
Could these policies be used as a ‘get out of jail’ free card for universities that have been poorly managed financially? This may be an attractive option for universities that are asset – and brand – rich, but cash-poor. Will this then remove the imperative for some universities to make efficiencies, drop poorly performing departments and reform?
If students drop out of the UCAS system after accepting a publically-funded place to take-up an off-quota place or AAB place (for example, at a more prestigious institution), how will that affect the institution that loses out? Will they have to drop into clearing and lower entry standards in order to keep that publically-funded place?
Contradicts main message:
Do off-quota places contradict the Government’s message that fees should not put people off? If fees aren’t a problem, because of the attractive repayment mechanisms, shouldn’t the Government be encouraging businesses and charities to concentrate their resources on paying for students’ accommodation and living expenses rather than fees?