Student number cap axed: DfE maintains policy was ‘not a waste of time’

The Office for Students said universities should offer students a place next year if they have now received the grades required for entry

Temporary student number controls introduced less than three months ago will now be axed, the Department for Education has confirmed – as Gavin Williamson’s team seeks to unpick the chaos caused by the A-level grading crisis.

The student number cap will be lifted across the UK to allow universities to accept more students who now have the A-level grades required to apply to higher education.

The decision yesterday (Monday 18 August) came as the education secretary announced that teacher-estimated results would be reinstated for all A-level students in England. Students will be able to keep their school-estimated grade – or the moderated grade, whichever is higher.

Similar U-turns on centre-assessed grades (CAGs) were made by Mr Williamson’s counterparts in Northern Ireland and Wales earlier that same day.

A spokeswoman for the Department for Education (DfE) told University Business: “It is our intention to remove the student number cap implemented in June.” Asked to clarify if there would be likely be any caveats to the announcement, the spokesperson confirmed: “There are no caveats. It will go back to the way it was.”

Student number controls were introduced 11 weeks ago and were a significant cornerstone of the government’s policy response to the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the English higher education sector.

The DfE spokesperson said the student cap backtrack did not mean the short-lived policy had been a wasted exercise.

Student number cap axed: DfE maintains policy was 'not a waste of time' Gavin Williamson
Mr Williamson apologised to students affected by the downgrading of A-level results.

At least 20,000 students were rejected by their firm-choice university because their adjusted grades were lower than their teacher predictions. These students – plus tens of thousands of others released to clearing ­– may now have the grades they needed to go to their first-choice university.

The exams regulator, Ofqual, least month revealed that if all students were given final grades based solely on CAGs, overall A-level results for England would be up compared with 2019 by 13 percentage points at B and above. As a result of the A-level U-turn, thousands more students may now have the option to pursue higher education.

This will cause challenges at this late stage in the admissions process – capacity, staffing, placements and facilities – particularly with the social distance measures in place
Alistair Jarvis, Universities UK

The sector’s largest union – the University and College Union – has concerns about the lifting of the student number cap.

General secretary Jo Grady said: “Removing the student number cap means certain universities can hoover up students hitting the finances of other institutions. It now needs to provide substantial financial support to the sector so that universities can protect all jobs, safely welcome students and continue to provide world class teaching and research.”

Ucas said about 69% of 18-year old applicants across the UK were currently placed with their first-choice university, which it said was “higher than at the same point last year”.

However, sector bigwigs confirmed that the fast-changing situation would create a headache for university admissions.

Alistair Jarvis, chief executive of Universities UK said the U-turn meant more students will have the grades that match the offer of their first-choice university. “This will cause challenges at this late stage in the admissions process – capacity, staffing, placements and facilities – particularly with the social distance measures in place,” he explained.

Dr Tim Bradshaw, CEO of the Russell Group – some of whose members are handling up to 1,000 appeals from applicants already – called for “urgent clarification from government” on support available to universities to cope with the ever-changing situation, and its implications for campus accommodation, planning course provision and Covid-19-related health and safety.

A number of high-tariff universities – including Bristol, Manchester, Leeds, Warwick, Edinburgh, Liverpool, Newcastle, Nottingham – still have places available for courses commencing this September.

Domestic student number controls (SNCs) were never imposed on Welsh, Scottish or Northern Irish universities by their respective devolved governments – but all UK universities were included in Whitehall’s recruitment cap on English-domiciled undergraduates.

The temporary SNCs allowed for English universities to recruit students up to a set level, based on 2019/20 numbers, provider forecasts, and with an allowance for additional growth of up to 5%. Universities in the devolved regions were allowed to recruit students up to a level based on 2019/20 numbers, plus 1.5%, plus an extra 5%.

Government feared larger providers would over-recruit English undergraduates, leaving smaller, specialist institutions facing shortfalls.

University Business asked the DfE if the risk to sector stability had now passed; the spokesperson rejected the idea the cap was compelled by financial concerns – despite the DfE’s plan from June stating that the cap was required “to ensure a fair, structured distribution of students across providers and will play an essential role in the stabilisation of the admissions system and the financial sustainability of providers.”

The spokesperson said the measures were introduced “with students’ best interests in mind” and now needed to be axed to serve those same students’ interests.

The second group is mature learners who may wish to attend university; this critical group usually applies later in the Ucas cycle. Both the government and universities should ensure that these applicants don’t get squeezed out in these unprecedented circumstances
Dr Greg Walker, MillionPlus

Dr Greg Walker, chief executive of MillionPlus, today said a task-force was needed “urgently” to examine the “unintended consequences” of yesterday’s U-turn.

“The government’s overarching aim of ‘stabilising the HE sector’, by ensuring that there are no shocks to the system which may threaten the sustainability of universities, must remain in place,” he continued.

Said Dr Walker: “While much of the attention is paid to A level students, we must ensure that other learners and applicants are not forgotten. These include BTec and other applied generals students whose grades may now be delayed for a significant period to rightly ensure they will be on a par with A-level candidates. The second group is mature learners who may wish to attend university; this critical group usually applies later in the Ucas cycle. Both the government and universities should ensure that these applicants don’t get squeezed out in these unprecedented circumstances.”

The Office for Students told students who missed a first-choice offer last Thursday, to “contact their university to see if they still have places available”.

“Where a course genuinely has not got the capacity to offer a place to a student, the university should discuss reasonable alternatives, including a place on another course or a place on the same course next year,” said the chief executive of the OfS, Nicola Dandridge.

Mr Williamson said during a speech on 9 July that higher education should not continue to expand. “It’s clear that there are limits to what can be achieved by sending ever more people to university, which is not always what the individual or our nation needs,” he said. Despite his proclaimed policy direction, Mr Williamson’s recent U-turn on caps and A-levels may see a higher percentage of 18-year-olds accessing higher education than ever before.


Read more: Universities waive entry requirements amid A-level confusion

Related news: A-level U-turn: teacher-assessed grades reinstated across UK

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