Government plan for student number controls announced

Education ministers in the devolved nations have criticised the plans that will affect universities in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland

The UK government has published details of how it will impose caps on undergraduate student numbers next year, rejecting opposition from the devolved administrations in Cardiff and Holyrood.

English universities have all been assigned an individual cap under the government’s plan, which was detailed in a document released yesterday evening (Monday 1 June) by the department for education (DfE).

HE providers can recruit the same number of students as last year, plus the forecasted increase for this year, plus 5%. This plan broadly follows the plan for student number controls proposed by Universities UK in a document sent to government in early April.

The plan has received a frosty welcome from education ministers from the Scottish and Welsh governments. Under the DfE’s cap, HE providers in devolved nations face a cap on the number of English domiciled students they can recruit. The limit is set at last year’s recruitment figure, plus 1.5% as an average forecasted increase, plus 5%. This limit will only apply to English undergraduates funded by loans from the Student Loans Company (SLC).

A Whitehall-imposed restriction on student numbers in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, which have devolved responsibility for higher education, has been heavily rebuked. Despite meetings with counterparts from the three devolved nations, UK HE minister Michelle Donelan, refused to change the policy.

Yesterday, Welsh education minister Kirsty Williams posted a message via Twitter, in which she said the announcement showed a lack of respect for the devolved nations.

“I disagree strongly with England’s approach on this matter. I respect decision-making in and for England, just as I do for the other governments in the UK. Quite simply, I expect the same respect from the minister. I will continue to consider my options,” Ms Williams said.

Scottish HE minister Richard Lochhead labelled the announcement from UK ministers “disappointing at a time of crisis”.

“We asked for this idea to be binned. Thousands of English students attend our unis & colleges & will continue to be warmly welcomed & valued,” he said in a tweet posted yesterday.

In a statement released last night, Ms Donelan said the decision was necessary “to stabilise the admissions system and protect higher education”.

“We want everyone who achieves their entry requirements to be able to go to university, and the measures seek to ensure students have the widest possible variety and most suitable places to study in the coming academic year, while avoiding harmful over-recruitment among providers which could go against the interests of students and the sector.

“The controls will make adjustments to take account of offers already accepted before 1 June and will make best use of taxpayer funding to support students,” she continued.

The government will allocate an additional 5,000 places for subjects such as nursing and healthcare and another 5,000 for STEM subjects at “high quality institutions”, the minister added.

If universities already have accrued more acceptances than their cap allows, the DfE has instructed them to stop recruiting any more students.

Any university that breaches their cap will have a reduction to their fee limit in 2021/22 – meaning a university that over-recruits for the 2020/21 academic year will not be able to charge students £9,250 for the following year.

According to the latest HESA figures from 2017/18, Scottish HE providers recruited 26,720 first-year students from England, which represents around 10% of annual enrolment. In contrast, just 9,420 Scottish students ventured south to enrol at English universities.

Welsh HE providers recruited 39,770 from England in 2017/18, accounting for 37% of enrolments. In contrast, English HE providers recruited 30,150 Welsh students.


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