Here’s some painkillers for the emerging admissions headache

Just before Christmas a student slid into my DMs with an interesting question.

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

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Is it normal, he asked for a friend, for synchronous hours to be halved on taught humanities courses this year and for online seminars to have sixty people in them, robbing students of any meaningful opportunity to participate?

People will call me a grubby neoliberal consumerist for doing this, but I referred him to the university’s website, which says words to the effect of:

Seminars are usually smaller than lectures, typically with groups of up to thirty students. They’re usually less formal than lectures, and provide you with opportunities to ask questions and debate themes and ideas. Seminars give you the chance to develop skills like communication and presentation and help you to build your confidence in speaking to an audience.”

Doubtless the pandemic has made delivering against the ideal in the marketing material difficult, and some high-tariff providers felt under pressure to admit more students than usual thanks to the grade inflation that emerged in the latter stages of the examnishambles.

But are experiences like those of my correspondent’s friend a one-off?

Right now – almost a year since we thought we were facing significant instability in the higher education ”market” – we appear again to be facing significant instability in the higher education ”market”, and that doesn’t benefit anybody.

For those that recruit far fewer students than they would normally admit, cuts loom large to promised provision – and cuts (usually) make the student experience worse. For those that end up taking on far greater numbers, there’s pressure on staff, facilities and local capacity like health and housing – and that makes the student experience worse too.

So the news that “teachers will be trusted” to determine this year’s A level results in England – with inevitable worries about grade inflation – is, as my colleague DK puts it, another headache for university admissions teams.

Back when there were caps on recruitment in England, recruiting the “right” number of students was regarded as an art – where landing the aeroplane on the postage stamp depended in no small part on a level of stability of the number of students rivals could recruit, and stability in the number of students likely to get a particular grade in a particular subject.

Both of those stabilities have now gone.

Nevertheless, there are supposed to be protections for students in all of this. OfS guidance on reportable events says that a substantial increase [or, we might safely assume, decrease] 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.

For individual students, Competition and Markets Authority guidance (which OfS’ regulatory framework requires providers to demonstrate compliance with) says that once an offer of a place has been provided, providers are obliged to admit the student on the relevant course of study if they meet the entry requirements and enrol. And consumer protection law says you’re supposed to deliver what you promise – even though that doesn’t seem to have been much use to students this year.

The reality is that once the government’s protracted pandemic examinshambles removes the certainties described above, the two protections described above – for the individual to get into a particular university, and for that experience to be protected in the round by not massively under or over recruiting, and delivering what’s “promised”, become meaningless.

For “high tariff” providers, whatever the official public position on capacity, the pressure will be to pack them in when the infrastructure can’t support it, or declare courses “full” when students have an offer. And everyone else will need to balance the books.

There’s three simple solutions here.

First, universities should be given a temporary legal exemption from the requirement to admit a student if an offer is made until government can return to a decent prediction of how many will get a particular grade.

Second, no university should be able to expand student numbers by more than, say, 5% above its rolling 3 year average to make sure the market settles and that there are not disastrous impacts on the student experience at both “ends” of the league tables.

And third, any student not admitted that meets their offer but finds that their university or course is “full”, and doesn’t want to “trade down” the tables, should be given something to do (I don’t mean this) and be generously financially compensated.

By government. After all, you break it, you pay for it.

One response to “Here’s some painkillers for the emerging admissions headache

  1. I thought I was offered a painkiller? I sure need one. I was in favour of splitting results and university admissions from the off because one could see this coming. Now I think we will be considering how we adapt our use of the UCAS process (especially Clearing timelines) to manage capacity. How long can we play nicely?

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