Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

It’s the most wonderful time of the year!

For the next week or so, much of the talk of “too many people going” or “woke madrassas indoctrinating the young” will be suspended in the annual admissions ceasefire – when ministers are temporarily reminded of just how hard it is, ultimately, to say no to people and their parents that want to go to university. Nobody in politics wants to be the enemy of opportunity.

Gavin Williamson is in the Sun on Sunday inserting himself into the Olympics slipstream, and there’s not a trace of “low value courses” or that dig at Tonty Blair’s 50 per cent target to be found:

We are working hard behind the scenes with the university sector to make sure that as many young people as ­possible can take up a place at university, and we are hoping that more students than ever do so.

It’s not the despair, Laura. I can take the despair. It’s the hope I can’t stand.

To make sure there are enough places this year on popular courses, especially those that are key to the country’s recovery from the pandemic, we are allocating an extra £10million in grant funding for nursing, STEM and other key subjects.

And to cap off a year of tardy decision making, he’s even taken the cap off dentistry and medicine (although notably not all the subjects that are still capped):

We also know there is huge demand for places on medicine and dentistry courses. We want to match our young people’s enthusiasm, so we have adjusted the cap on places to enable more students than ever to get a chance to study on these courses.

Everything is average nowadays

Meanwhile in the Telegraph, Lord James Wharton is having a massive slice of subsidised cake from the Peers’ dining room and eating it in a piece headlined “This A-level results day” (BTECS, of course, being something that other newspapers’ readers do).

First – don’t you dare turn away students:

Universities must honour the offers they have made to students. If a student has kept up their end of the bargain and earned the grades they need to start their course this year, they should be certain there is a place waiting for them.

Now we know from news stories that we’re likely to see kids from private schools doing very well in this year’s admissions round – not necessarily because teachers are cheating, but because their families have had the resources to support their kids during lockdown with extra tutoring and support.

So Lord Wharton says that once your medical and law schools are oversubscribed with posh kids through no fault of your own offer making process, make sure you pack out english and geography with everyone else as well:

All English universities and colleges have quite rightly set themselves ambitious goals for widening access to our great universities. The last year has been very difficult but that cannot be an excuse for these goals to be relaxed or ignored.

And then, once you’re neck deep in students to meet the demand, don’t you dare let quality slip:

Students embarking on new courses this year should also expect a high quality course, properly resourced and taught well. All courses should be academically stretching and open minds to new ideas. Universities should bear this in mind as they confirm offers over the coming days, ensuring that decisions made now do not inadvertently risk the quality of students’ academic experience once they have enrolled.

Time honoured tradition

We know by now the pressures that are driving demand for higher education – the counter-cyclical shielding role that education plays in a recession (including doing “panic masters”); the amount of sex that people were having 18 or so years ago; the general increase in demand caused by more women going into higher education a generation ago (whether your mum went to university really matters); net international demand holding up despite Brexit; and, of course, the thing universities must not have but is now rife in schools and colleges – grade inflation.

The summer’s sequel to last year’s blockbuster hit “Examnishambles” takes the surprise sequence of grade inflation at the end (inflation that, building on the previous decade, Gavin Williamson had spent months trying to prevent) and builds a whole new narrative arc around it, with both even more students believing they are qualified for university, and an intense clustering effect at the top of the tariff tables because there’s nowhere else to trade up to.

To meet that increase in demand even partially, we then have a bunch of providers operating in a market that has rules and incentives baked in that didn’t look especially suitable before the pandemic, and now look hopelessly unfit for purpose.

The choice architecture is basically broken on both sides. In an average year on the competition see-saw, a bit of competition amongst universities for students ought to improve their “offer” as students go compare, and a bit of competition amongst students for universities ought to improve their academic performance in the run up.

But for all the “scramble” talk, most universities know their numbers are up and most students either know they’re getting in or will take what they can find (having not been able to take a proper look for eighteen months). The complacency all of that breeds on both sides is actually helpful in a pandemic – but could have all sorts of unintended consequences in the medium term.

The incentives to pack in students have never been stronger. Demand is up. Ministers want it to happen. This is the fifth year in a row that universities in England will have been coping on frozen units of £27,750 per three year degree course and the extra cash and economies of scale will help. They’re under a legal obligation to meet the terms of the offers they’ve made anyway. Your online pivot means that the size of the lecture theatres is no longer a constraint on course size. And ahead of any Augar review decision, the sector will be wanting to fill its boots to the brim before those units start to look even more grim.

Oh my god I can’t believe it

The rules on supply quality look pretty shot too. OfS hasn’t really been enforcing any for a year or so now, is still consulting on vague new rules on qualitative judgements on minimum quality, and is yet to publish review conclusions on quantitative “outcomes” minimums that will necessarily take years to judge accurately.

And it has providers under the cosh on access and participation – so once you’ve totted up the white young posh kids foisted on you by Gavin’s big summer sequel, your only option to please Chris Millward is to pack even more disadvantageds in to make the percentages less embarrassing – even though your chances of scaling up the support required to help more of those students to succeed in time are nil.

It’s not that OfS doen’t care about expansion – its guidance on reportable events does still say the following:

A substantial increase in the number of new students registering at a provider could affect the provider’s ability to satisfy condition E2 (management and governance) in the short term, and conditions B2 and B3 (quality and standards) in the longer term, where the increase raises concerns about whether such growth was effectively planned and managed, or whether the quality of student support or student outcomes will be maintained for larger numbers of students”

But how would it know? Can OfS even see expansion below provider level before it’s too late? And doesn’t the examnishambles remove the ability of the regulator to blame providers for ineffective planning and management? Aren’t universities the heroes for taking more in rather than the villains who stretched the resources too thinly?

The angry mob

It’s not popular to say this in most circles, but I worry a lot about rapid, dramatic and unplanned expansion. I’m not a “more means worse” doom monger, but sector level increases of the sorts we saw last year and will see this year are one thing – numbers below the surface at provider, programme and even module level that are even more dramatic than the headlines are quite another.

Whenever I’m banging on about student consumer rights, I’m lectured at a lot that higher education isn’t like consumer goods, with supply able to be ramped up and down rapidly at a stroke. It’s both complex in and of itself, and its supply has impacts beyond the walls of the campus. Crucially, it takes time to expand it and time to contract it. So how is it that are we able to accommodate such dramatic expansion so quickly?

Many of us have experienced the misery of a day out with the kids to a UK theme park on a sunny Bank Holiday Monday. It takes longer to get there. The parking is miles out in a muddy overflow field. The queues are intolerable. The food costs a fortune. To salvage the day and stem the tears, you spend more on stuffed extras and ice cream than you would have done on a rainy Tuesday in term time. And you only need one of the attractions to break down for absolute chaos to ensue.

That’s one day. In higher education, we’re looking at years of people’s lives.

Take just one facet of all of this – the student housing market. Back when I worked in a university students’ union in the middle of the last decade, I was disturbed to discover that the then registrar hadn’t really thought about (or talked to the council about) the ability of the local housing market to take extra undergraduates in a period of planned expansion – “the invisible hand of the market will take care of that, Jim.”

Worse still, various senior figures kept telling me that x per cent growth in first year undergraduates would need the housing market to find that same x per cent of houses – without considering the compound impact of expansion.

This was ironic given how much chat there was around about pensions and investments at the time, but let’s run some numbers. Imagine you grow your undergraduate recruitment by ten per cent three years in a row, and then leave it flat. Then imagine that three quarters of those students study away from home in the city, renting bed spaces in the local housing market:

You forget that plenty of the undergrads you’ve recruited like to stay in the city and stay on to do postgraduate courses. The city can’t cope. Expensive private halls shoot up (but not fast enough), rents increase for everyone, and town-gown relations head south.

I predict a riot

Continuing to plumb the depths of this worst case scenario, over on campus, there’s chaos. That the staff-student ratio varies by programme and school has always been the case, but while the “Robin Hood” principle can work for Channel 4, there are actual costs involved in more students being enrolled onto the popular courses that not even the efficiencies of online lectures can cope with. Marking gets later and later. Access to academics is replaced with casuals and PGRs. Exams are replaced with cheaper to supervise group projects. And so on.

Social learning spaces were vital for facilitating students’ learning – but after a decade of loan-backed building, somewhere to sit is now in short supply – and as more provision moves online, much of the cost of delivery has moved from the university to the student, their home and their IT equipment.

Face to face contact hours – directly correlated with good mental health – fall at just the moment that we needed to build back students’ mental health, and the counselling team is even further behind. Pressure on the books and facilities and spaces that are there intensifies even further as returning students try to claim some of what they missed in the pandemic. And a hundred little costs are allowed to grow – the cost of a breakfast here, the cost of a colour photocopy there – because they can.

The number of student conduct cases increases, but the committee that handles them can’t cope. The marketing team has been advertising 150 student societies – but they collapsed in the pandemic, and the SU can’t find volunteers fast enough to replace them. Placements – formal and required, and informal and advertised – are rare, miles away, miserable or all three. You can never get into the gym because everyone else wants to lose the pandemic flab too. And the buses! Oh my days the buses!

Every day I love you less and less

The government, to the extent to which it actually thinks about anything, doesn’t care much – it’s both desperate not to look like the enemy of opportunity, and desperate to get the cost per head down. So while it talks a good game on “minimum quality” or “equality of opportunity”, it quietly leans on its new chair at the regulator to see that only the most egregious examples are tackled, as the system pivots post-pandemic to be delivered more cheaply while extracting even more of a contribution from graduates and their parents.

In an ideal world, students and their parents would be demanding SSRs at programme level, better student protection plans, real increases in maintenance funding and accommodation guarantees for three years, not one. And universities would be acting in unison rather than competition – identifying the multi-layered and complex actions and investment required from responsible governments to keep the opportunity show on the road. But we’re neither in an ideal world, nor in a country that appears to be able to spot what might be a problem next week, let alone next term or year.

All of which means that for staff, students and even vice chancellors, while the last 18 months have involved an eternal tussle between freedom and safety, the real pivot that’s needed now is to instead start weighing up the tensions involved in efficiency. More doesn’t have to mean worse – but when it starts to, drawing a line and saying “no” until the resource is there is the only way it stops. If not you – and I mean anyone with even a scrap of agency in HE, then who? And if not now – in this most wonderful time when ministers are desperate – then when?

3 responses to “In higher education, we need to know what full looks like

  1. Gavin Williamson being a politician is following the usual script, and whilst Tony B-liar (sp!) pushed the 50% on the basis of opportunity, every politician since understands that was just to sell the idea to the public, whilst the reality was to create a buffer soak to keep young people off the unemployed stats for the political optics. The resultant NEET stats also became a stick to beat schools and colleges with, as every politician tends to put pressure on them to try and get potential students engaged with the idea of training/uni as early as possible.

    From that perspective even the most useless uni degree course is useful to the politicians…

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