Minister wants universities to expand to meet growing demand from students – and shrink where demand falls
Universities should embrace the government’s market reforms of higher education by competing with each other for undergraduates, David Willetts says today.
The universities minister also says he expects some universities to shrink if student demand falls.
Many more candidates should get their first choice of university this year as government reforms take effect, Willetts says. Under coalition reforms, English universities can recruit unlimited numbers of students who achieve grades AAB or above, changing a system in which each institution has a fixed number of state-funded places every year.
Before publication of A-level results for 335,000 candidates in England, Northern Ireland and Wales, the minister urges institutions to take advantage of the new system. In an article for the Guardian, Willetts says: “My conversations with vice-chancellors suggest universities are responding imaginatively to this liberation, so many more applicants should be able to attend their first-choice university. I recognise universities do not have rubber walls that allow endless expansion but we do expect them to start growing – and perhaps contracting – in line with demand.”
Undergraduates deserve a “world-class education” in exchange for higher fees, the minister says. Institutions in England can charge up to £9,000 a year for the first time from this autumn.
Underlining financial pressures on universities, Willetts says: “Now that the main funding for degrees flows via students there are sharper incentives to deliver an excellent student experience.”
The partial lifting of the student quota system – known as number control – will affect 85,000 candidates this year. However, it may have a limited impact on the most selective universities, which have little space or incentive for expansion. Oxford and Cambridge have ruled out expanding. Among Russell Group universities, Bristol plans a significant expansion – admitting an additional 600 UK undergraduates this year – while UCL intends to add another 300. Next year the relaxation of number control will be more far-reaching – it is being extended to students achieving grades of ABB or higher, affecting one in three entrants or around 120,000 people .
Figures published in March indicated a “squeezed middle” of English universities might suffer sharp falls in student numbers this autumn. The estimate identified a band of 34 universities which neither attract the best-performing students nor offer the lowest fees, including Bedfordshire, the University of Central Lancashire, Leeds Met and Sheffield Hallam.
The Institute for Fiscal Studies, which describes the new student finance system as “substantially more progressive”, says its research shows that the poorest 30% of graduates, in terms of life-time earnings, will be better-off under the new regime. The richest 15% of graduates will pay back more than they borrow.
However, there is concern about a decline in applications. The lifting of the fees cap has led to a “clear drop” in the number of English students applying for university places this autumn, an independent analysis has found.
There are 15,000 “missing” applicants who might have been expected to have sought a place on a degree course this academic year but did not, according to the Independent Commission on Fees.
Teenagers who miss out on a place at university have been encouraged by an employers’ organisation to get work experience in their year off.
Carl Gilleard, chief executive of the Association of Graduate Recruiters (AGR), which represents over 800 firms, said a degree was a “significant asset” but it was not the sole route to a successful career.
“Those who take a year out ought also to seize the opportunity to gain experience of the workplace in order to add to their next university application, and to help them to begin preparing for career decisions after university,” he said.
“Taking a year out before going on to university will not weaken future job applications, providing that you are able to demonstrate what you have gained during the year.”