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Capping student numbers with the mask of anonymity removed

The idea of a need to cap student numbers at universities in England has crashed from obscurity into view as a result of the Coronavirus crisis. International students will not turn up and many universities with most to lose are planning to back-fill their empty places with home-grown students. The government must accept that there is likely to be damaging and ruthless competition unless the sector is regulated. This amounts to an admission of failure of the false ‘free market’ in higher education. There are concerns about a negative effect on more disadvantaged students. However, the link between uncapped numbers and widening access is a false one. Numbers can be capped at reasonably generous levels and this can be achieved fairly through the use of contextual admissions. Indeed, this might be the only way to improve widening access fairly when not constrained within a false marketplace. This is a very hot topic now and it must be addressed fairly and quickly to avoid lasting damage.

In preparing this post in the last few days, it seems the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) has stolen much of my thunder yesterday with an excellent and informed post ‘How to square widening participation with student number caps’.
Many of the points I was to raise today are already there.

The HEPI posting was written by Maria Neophytou and Ben Gadsby. Maria is the Director of Public Affairs and Ben is Policy and Research Manager at Impetus; a charity that supports young people from disadvantaged backgrounds to succeed in education. They also help in supporting other initiatives such as The Access Project and IntoUniversity. The post is therefore highly credible and should be considered very seriously by all universities and government agencies. Their main points are that that cap should be temporary and that it should not restrict the number of students overall. It is assumed they mean UK students affected by a proposed cap. The potential impact on disadvantaged students is lighting up brightly on their radar. The established fact that such students generally achieve grades above what was predicted is a genuine concern. This is a well-established phenomenon that infects the whole system as revealed by the Sutton Trust in 2017 with ‘Poorer pupils at a disadvantage over A-level grade predictions’.

Some the key issues in the overall debate were broadcast yesterday in a podcast: ‘Number controls, safety nets, community contribution’ that is still available.

HEPI has also followed up today with another posting. This time from an anonymous author who says, ‘If a student numbers cap is to return, then the sector needs to demonstrate that it was the last resort’. The author is billed as “someone working at a senior level in an English university”. There is nothing particularly controversial in the offering. So, by not knowing who it is, there is a suspicion of a conflict of interest that motivates the proposals in the article. The emphasis is put on the effect on ‘existential crises for many universities’ and ‘sustainability’. Not on how to support the prospects of their students at this time. There is a general call for the government to prop up the universities with finance in the existing system and only tamper with it as a very last resort. But its credibility is not well served when hidden behind the mask of anonymity. It is generally known that some universities have financial problems, some are making unconditional offers and many will lose income along with the sudden drop in international students. The fear is that a cap could become a permanent fixture. But then again, why not?

It is not a UK-wide issue.

The arguments surrounding student number caps are largely confined to England, and to some extent Wales. Scotland and Northern Ireland subsidise university places for their own students. Northern Ireland has lower fees and Scotland has no fees. This means that, in both jurisdictions, there is a limit on student places. This is particularly acute in Northern Ireland where students have fewer opportunities unless they are rich enough to travel elsewhere in Ireland or ‘across the water’ to GB (see TEFS 22nd February 2019 ‘Northern Ireland and the scandal of the ‘Third University’ and 30th August 2019 ‘Widening access in Scotland at WARF factor three’). Those looking at numbers in England would be sensible to look more closely at the situation in these jurisdictions and take the best parts from them, especially in widening access.

What is going on here?


Last Sunday the Observer reported, ‘Government set to cap university admissions amid Covid-19 chaos’. This was based upon a Universities UK meeting on the Friday before that gave qualified support to a cap on numbers at this time. Although it represents a glimmer of hope that universities might cooperate with each other at a time of crisis, it seems that some of the leading ‘elite’ universities were opposed. Why would they oppose caps? Simply put, they are likely to take a bigger hit with the loss of fees from international students failing to turn up this year. To compensate for this, they will ‘backfill’ places with as many UK students as they could find.
This would be the perfect application of ‘market forces’ at the most ruthless level allowed. Add to this the results out today of a survey done for UCAS by Youthsight, 'A level students still setting their sights on undergraduate study'. This shows most students are planning to go to university this year. But a significant 10% are not with 5% opting to set exams in the autumn. The worry is that more may try to defer in time if they feel they could do better next year. The government must fear that this would have a knock-on effect on other institutions who will see their numbers decline catastrophically as a result. The government is therefore reasonably applying the sort of regulatory brakes on the market akin to the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA). Presumably, this role would be taken by the Office for Students (OfS) whose consultation on the admissions system, launched in February is now on hold. It is indeed becoming chaotic.

The TEFS position on student numbers and a cap.

The idea of linking fair access to unregulated student numbers suffers from a fundamental logical flaw. One is not necessarily a consequence of the other. There is no reason for making the link which leads to a conclusion that unrestricted numbers allow more disadvantaged students the chance to go to a university. The two things need not be linked at all. The idea is predicated on the ideology of a ‘free market’ in university places. The system is based upon judging attainment of students and putting less priority on inherent ability or context. The former can be enhanced by better schools and family background. The latter by moving to contextualised selection for admissions. Capping numbers only becomes a problem if the cap is too low and able disadvantaged students are excluded. To make a capped system fair, it is necessary to meet two conditions. Firstly, that the cap is not too low and, secondly, that access is based upon context, ability and potential.

In a ‘capped’ system, there would be a limit put on numbers. This is usually brought in where the government and taxpayer are paying for the places, either in part or in whole. In contrast, the ‘free market’ simply encourages access on the basis of who can meet a basic attainment level and can pay or accept the debt. This encourages competition between universities for numbers. Those that can pay find it easier to get in. Those that cannot pay tend to be cautious about debt and fear the impact of part-time jobs on their success. The simple result is that students of lesser ability, who can afford it, move ahead of similar students who cannot. In contrast, a capped system might be expected to lead to competition between students for places. This was the case for many years until full fees emerged. The challenge is to ensure that the competition is truly a fair one.

The current free-market system is locked in a cycle that is unlikely to do well at helping disadvantaged students. There are three main tiers of university prestige. This maintains a ‘class system’ in access; indeed, it seems to be deliberate. At the top are the Russell Group Universities with Oxford and Cambridge at the very top. Then the pre-92 institutions that have been established for many years. Moving up fast on the outside are the newer post-92 universities that have expanded their numbers. But this expansion has been through providing access to more disadvantaged students that are likely to display lower attainment. Indeed, some in the government, who should know better, described this a ‘bums on seats’ strategy (see TEFS 8th March 2019 ‘“Bums on seats”: The government’s cynical view’).


This situation has been around for many years and looks likely to remain unless radical action is taken. Figure 1, taken from an analysis by TEFS last October (19th October 2018 ‘OfS progress on widening participation: Reserve your seat now for 2204AD’) illustrates how there has been little change in the distribution of students from POLAR (*see note below) low participation areas. Here, the universities are arranged in research power ranking that is the measure that defines ‘elite’ in the UK, even though those institutions devote fewer research-active staff to actual teaching. The dichotomy between those that have and those that have less in access to the ‘elite’ universities is a stark one.

The system as it stands is unstainable.

There is a narrow window of opportunity for the government to make access fairer and regulate student numbers. This window will not be open for very long and no action or taking positive action are both likely to have long-term effects. But the government must accept that a free market in uncapped numbers is inherently flawed. Particularly at a time of crisis. The idea of assessing the potential of students in context is here and at the right time. It is fairer and must be applied. The full findings of the Sutton Trust in their report from 2017 ‘Rules of the Game’ have been strikingly influential in promoting the idea of contextual admissions and this should become compulsory reading for everyone involved. The Network for Evaluating and Researching University Participation Interventions (NERUIP) has also provided a timely update of the issues surrounding contextual admissions with ‘Admissions, the Virus and Widening Access’. It is surely the only way forward. 
Mike Larkin, retired from Queen's University Belfast after 37 years teaching Microbiology, Biochemistry and Genetics


*NOTE. POLAR refers to Participation of Local Areas and there are now four versions. The data used here is based upon POLAR Version 3. The POLAR3 classification is formed by ranking 2001 Census Area Statistics (CAS) wards by their young participation rates for the combined 2005 to 2009 cohorts. This gives five quintile groups of areas ordered from ‘1’ (those wards with the lowest participation) to ‘5’ (those wards with the highest participation), each representing 20 per cent of UK young cohort. Students have been allocated to the neighbourhoods on the basis of their postcode. Those students whose postcode falls within wards with the lowest participation (quintile 1) are denoted as being from a low participation neighbourhood. See HESA Definitions and benchmark factors: definitions.

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