Universities UK attacks student number cap proposal

The government is considering a cap on places for some courses “so that providers can refocus” on those degrees ministers deem the most valuable to students and society

The government’s proposed plan to cap student numbers would “turn back the clock on social mobility” and prove “counterproductive” as the country seeks to increase the number of adults with high-level skills, Universities UK (UUK) has warned.

UUK represents 140 institutions – most in England, where the proposed reforms would impact – and today published its response to a government consultation on sweeping higher education reforms, which closed on Friday, 6 May.

UUK said it opposed a student number cap, arguing the UK already faced a growing graduate skills gap predicted to grow to over 15% by 2030. Graduate shortages affect some subject areas more than others – and the government says it is considering a cap on some subjects “so that providers can refocus on high-quality provision and subjects which deliver the best outcomes, for students, society and the economy”. UUK warned it was impossible for ministers to predict future skills needs.

“We understand the government is concerned whether taxpayers’ money is being spent well on high-quality courses aligned with the skills needs of the economy,” UUK said in its consultation response, adding it was keen “to explore alternatives” to meet the government’s economic goals.

The mission group also warned that a cap would most adversely affect students from disadvantaged backgrounds and regions of the country – and damage expertise and knowledge in fields “that cannot simply be re-established” if need arises. It pointed to a cap on nursing places, the legacy of which is still felt in the sector’s struggle to expand the number of training places.

UUK also disagreed with plans for minimum entry requirements to access student finance, claiming it would frustrate efforts to increase the number of students from non-traditional and disadvantaged backgrounds in higher education.

Data from the Office for Students (OfS) shows that students with the lowest reported A-level results had higher-than-average continuation rates, demonstrating “prior attainment data does not determine” success in HE, UUK said.

Students from disadvantaged backgrounds are statistically more likely to underperform at GCSE and A-level “because opportunity in terms of schooling is not evenly spread” and therefore more likely to be barred from HE, UUK predicted.

The implementation of minimum entry requirements would be in breach of the Equality Act and the Public Sector Equality Duty
– Sally Burtonshaw, London Higher

Said Prof Steve West, president of UUK: “All reforms to higher education need to be in the best interests of students as well as universities, business and society. We remain committed to working together with government to ensure future policy decisions reduce inequalities and wholeheartedly support the levelling up agenda.”

GuildHE joined UUK in condemning the plans. A spokesperson for the organisation, which represents small specialist HE providers, warned student number controls were “highly complex to deliver centrally” and “a very blunt instrument”. The OfS already has measures to restrict failing HE providers from recruiting students, the GuildHE spokesperson continued, adding: “Anything more than this risks destabilising the sector and massively restricting student choice and equality of opportunities.”

Earlier this year, the government launched three consultations that affect universities: the lifelong learning entitlement, higher education reform and the UK research assessment. All three closed on 6 May, and last week, several university mission groups – including Universities Alliance, MillionPlus and the Russell Group – offered feedback. Last week, UUK warned that sustainable state funding, better guidance for students and more flexible rules are needed if the proposed lifelong learning entitlement is to work.

London Higher, which represents institutions in the capital, said minimum entry requirements and student number controls “represent a breach of the Equality Act and the Public Sector Equality Duty” as it called for the government to scrap the plans. The mission group said its research suggested that the proposed minimum entry requirements at GCSE – of at least a grade 4, historically a C grade, in English and Maths – would “lockout” 49.4% of Free School Meal and 86.1% of special educational needs pupils in outer London.

Sally Burtonshaw, senior policy and advocacy officer at London Higher, said: “No provider or government can precisely identify which individuals will be successful within higher education. The introduction of MERs [minimum entry requirements] would do little to reduce the burden to the taxpayer but would prohibit opportunity for the most disadvantaged, despite evidence suggesting that these students can and do benefit from higher education.

“The implementation of MERs would be in breach of the Equality Act and the Public Sector Equality Duty, exerting a disproportionate and unjustifiable impact on several groups of students whose characteristics are protected under equalities legislation.”

Read more: Lifelong learning entitlement requires ‘sustainable’ university funding

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