Could Covid-19 mean the return of student number caps?

The government might be considering a cap on student recruitment because of coronavirus

The government may cap the number of undergraduates that individual universities in England can recruit because of the impact coronavirus could have on student numbers, it has been reported.

Both the Guardian and the BBC have today reported that the Department for Education may introduce the emergency measure in response to increased competition among universities for students. There are expected to be fewer enrolments this autumn due to the disruption caused by the pandemic to A-level exams and international student recruitment.

The number of international students is expected to drop this year because of coronavirus, prompting many commentators to warn that universities might compete intensely to recruit domestic students to fill up courses.

According to the BBC, a government source described the idea as “speculation”.

‘This will not be a one-year exercise’

Responding to the reports, Alistair Jarvis, chief executive of Universities UK (UUK), said: “The UUK board discussed a range of measures needed to promote financial stability of the sector in these tough times.

“Foremost was the need for government financial support for universities. Student number controls were discussed and it was agreed that further consideration of the pros and cons were needed, with further input from members.”

Student number caps were removed in 2015 and several HE figures have suggested limits should return to protect the sector from intense competition. Some have suggested it be done officially by the university regulator, while others prefer that vice-chancellors agree a mutual accord.

Prof Sir Chris Husbands, vice-chancellor at Sheffield Hallam University, warned today in an opinion piece for the Higher Education Policy Institute that the impact of coronavirus “means the re-imposition of student number controls to ensure that institutions have a viable first year student population”.

“Realistically, given the damage to school students’ education and examination preparation, this will not be a one-year exercise,” Sir Chris warned.

Last week, University of Buckingham vice-chancellor Sir Anthony Seldon urged large universities to not “gobble up even more students this September” in response to the coronavirus disruption because it might deprive small institutions.

Unconditional offers

The university regulator, the Office for Students (OfS), has twice warned universities in recent weeks to ‘pause’ offering unconditional offer making in light of the Covid-19 outbreak, after it was reported that several institutions had begun offering students a promise of a place in September if they agree to accept the offer.

University Business contacted many of the universities involved, including Birmingham City, Essex, Liverpool John Moores, York St John – all said the decision to update conditional offers to unconditional offers had been taken to mitigate students’ concerns about A-level exams and the upcoming academic year.

There are people who have long wanted to restrict access to higher education who might see this as the chance to do it. Yet when there are fewer jobs to go around, education becomes more important, not less
– Nick Hillman, Hepi

Earlier this year, Nick Hillman, the director of Hepi and a former government advisor, told University Business he would want government to “do almost anything” before it considered reintroducing student number caps.

In response to the latest reports, Mr Hillman said the coronavirus pandemic was “fast becoming the catalyst for the return of student number caps”.

“There has to be a policy response to this severe crisis, and we have to protect our university sector at a time of such profound change.

“But there are people who have long wanted to restrict access to higher education who might see this as the chance to do it. Yet when there are fewer jobs to go around, education becomes more important, not less.

“Reintroducing number caps would protect those universities that have grown the most in recent years by locking down the number of home students that they educate and stopping others from growing at their expense. Older, more prestigious universities would be the biggest losers, as they had hoped to be able to replace lost international students with more home students,” he said.

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “We are committed to supporting our world-class higher education institutions, and will continue working closely with the sector to manage the impact of coronavirus.

“We recognise the challenges universities are facing, but are impressed by their resilience and efforts to tackle the virus, through the use of labs, accommodation and community support.”

You might also like: Profile: Nick Hillman, Hepi


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