The University and College Union – which represents more than 130,000 members – has called for pay rises for university staff that, they say, will face extra work as student numbers grow to record levels.
The announcement came as Ucas confirmed that UK universities had approved places for more than 435,000 students on full-time undergraduate courses, up 5% on results day 2020.
UCU general secretary Jo Grady said university employers “need to put the same faith in staff that this year’s university applicants have and pay them fairly”.
“A below-inflation pay offer cannot be justified with record numbers of students entering higher education this year,” Grady bristled.
Ucas data from the first day of the 2021 admission cycle reveal that the increase in student enrolment appears – for the moment – unevenly distributed across the sector.
While overall enrolment figures are up, higher-tariff universities – like those in the Russell Group – are set to expand their first-year cohorts more than most.
Figures from the first day of the admissions process show that higher tariff UK universities accepted 14% more students than last year – intake increased at medium tariff universities by 2% but dropped 2% at lower tariff universities.
Higher tariff providers enrolled 21,000 more students than at this point last year – most are 18-year-old school-leavers. Those over-subscribed universities have thus far confirmed 23% more places to 18-year-olds than 2021: many of them, like the University of Manchester, will not accept students through clearing this year – after doing so last year.
Tuition fee refunds
This morning, the chair of the Office for Students, James Wharton, reminded universities “not to risk the quality of higher education by overrecruiting to courses”.
“When the new term starts they must make sure that students have access to high-quality, well-resourced provision which is academically stretching and opens students’ minds to new ideas,” said Lord Wharton.
I think if universities are not delivering, not delivering what students expect, then actually they shouldn’t be charging the full fees
– Gavin Williamson, education secretary
Addressing Covid measures ahead of the start of a new term, ministers in England have told universities: “HE providers should continue to make efforts to reduce the risk of transmission where possible. They should not put in place measures which limit the teaching and learning outcome for students, or significantly limit the wider activities offered by the HE provider.”
Reaffirming this point today, Conservative peer Wharton said: “With coronavirus restrictions removed, universities are now free to return to in-person teaching, and they should have credible plans for this to be restored. Universities will be making sensible contingency plans for the possibility of further restrictions, and they will want to build on some of the innovations that have served students well during the pandemic.
“Where some universities plan a mix of in-person and online learning, the OfS’ primary concern will continue to be around course quality, and we are clear that – however teaching is delivered – students should receive a good quality experience of higher education.
“In making decisions about how provision will be delivered, universities and colleges must ensure that they keep students properly informed. They should take into account the views of their students when making decisions about how courses are taught.”
In interviews today (Tuesday 10 August), education secretary Gavin Williamson said that, from the autumn, universities should offer in-person lectures and tutorials again. In a move that could prove seismic, Williamson indicated he might support tuition fees refunds for students that feel they receive too little face-to-face teaching.
Williamson told Sky News: “Our guidance is clear, our direction is clear and we do expect all universities, unless there’s unprecedented reasons, to be moving back to the situation of actually delivering lessons, lectures, face to face.”
He added: “I think universities have got to sort of stand up their offer to their own students. I think they have the flexibility and the ability to deliver face-to-face lectures and expect them to be delivering face-to-face lectures.”
Asked about refunds by Kay Burley of Sky News, Mr Williamson said: “Universities have got to stand up their offers to their students, but we have got the Office for Students, which is targeting universities which have low-quality courses which aren’t doing enough, and we will give the OfS all the power, all the backing, in order to pursue those universities that aren’t delivering enough for students that are paying their fees.
“I think if universities are not delivering, not delivering what students expect, then actually they shouldn’t be charging the full fees.”
Following his interviews this morning, NUS president Larissa Kennedy said: “The Secretary of State is definitely on a journey to realising fees don’t work. We’d love to chat with him about how we could get towards our vision of funded, accessible and lifelong education – but he’s been too busy to meet us the past few times we’ve asked.”
Grady warned Williamson against “denigrating” HE staff. “Instead of threatening universities with a fee reduction for putting health and safety first during a pandemic, the government should be investing in higher education so universities aren’t reliant on fees. A marketised model for universities, which treats education as a commodity and students as consumers will never prioritise the wellbeing of students or staff,” she reiterated.
BTEC’s ‘crucial entry route into university’
UCU has been campaigning to stop the government withdrawing BTEC funding.
Renewing her commitment to the campaign, Grady today said: “Thousands of students who receive their Level 3 BTec qualifications will now be able to enter higher education. Many will be the first in their families to do so.
“BTecs are a crucial entry route into university for those from working class backgrounds, yet the government wants to scrap them. The Department for Education needs to urgently change course if it truly cares about supporting students to reach their full potential.
“Cutting BTec funding would hamper plans to level up communities and widen participation.”
Time for ‘bold reform’
UCU today renewed its call for “bold reform” to university admissions, favouring a post-qualification admissions
“After two extraordinary years, it’s now time for the government to focus on ensuring the fairest possible system for the future of university admissions. If we want to begin removing the disadvantages currently baked into the system, students should apply to university after they receive their grades.
“Now is the time for bold reform which supports applicants to make better informed choices. Reforms also need to be underpinned by properly funded, structured advice and guidance to make the system fairer for all students.”
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