According to Steve West, restricting university entry will make broadening participation and leveling-up even more difficult.
The government’s plans to restore student population caps in England or impose minimum entry standards have been discussed for some time, but institutions’ skepticism has not waned.
Universities UK has just responded to the government’s higher education reform consultation. Our strong opposition to student number caps and misgivings about the practicality of minimum entry standards may appear obvious – and undoubtedly, these policies would be costly to many schools. However, financial viability is simply one aspect of the logic behind our positions.
We oppose a student number cap because we believe it will effectively act as a ceiling on aspiration, affecting individuals from low-income families the most and shattering their goals and dreams. A cap will be extremely restrictive to those who cannot afford to travel away from their home towns for university, as well as limiting students’ freedom of choice by inevitably reducing the breadth and diversity for which the UK is known.
These students will not feel able to apply to as many universities as other applicants, and as a result, their chances of acceptance will be reduced. This also means they run the danger of picking a career path that isn’t suited for them and will lead to bad employment outcomes.
Due to these constraints, a student number quota runs the potential of entrenching disadvantage, making it utterly ineffective in achieving the government’s stated leveling-up goals. By making it more difficult for people to upskill, restricting access to education will reduce the success of the lifelong loan entitlement. We also understand that strategically important talents can shift swiftly. As a result, the variety of courses available reduces future skill shortages.
The United Kingdom requires more graduates, not fewer. In 2022, there were 1 million more graduate vacancies than graduates, therefore reducing access to universities would be an unreasonable step. Those who need more convincing that student number limitations are bad for everyone can see the impact of the 2011 number cap on nursing and allied health students, which contributed to the chronic nursing shortages that we still have today. This will take years to resolve, adding to the strains on our health-care system.
The University of the United Kingdom is also underlining the practical concerns with the government’s proposed minimal entry standards (a pass in GCSE English and maths, in the government’s main option). The government has previously stated that there will be various exceptions to this policy, such as it not applying to mature students wishing to retrain. However, there are other obstacles to overcome in order to ensure that this strategy does not exacerbate disparities.
The lack of educational opportunity in England is exacerbated by the use of a minimum entry requirement, which prevents institutions from recognizing those with the capacity to achieve by taking into account all of their circumstances. Students who enter with low grades do not necessarily graduate with low grades. Universities have worked hard to increase access to university, and data from the Office for Students’ expanding participation program shows that students who entered higher education with the lowest reported A-level results had greater continuation rates than the sector average. We must continue to provide opportunities to all students who have the ability to achieve at university. To put it bluntly, we need the largest talent pool available to compete worldwide.
Of course, minimum entry requirements will have the greatest impact on universities that recruit a large number of students from low-income families. Some of these universities are part of the government’s leveling-up priority sectors. Others, such as Wolverhampton, Middlesbrough, and Bolton, are in boroughs with poor gross value added to the economy. Reduced student numbers may limit their ability to invest locally and help level the playing field. These financial ramifications may eventually result in more “cold spots” in access to higher education, which we all wish to avoid.
We agree with the government that geography should not limit opportunity, and we pledge to work together to guarantee that this never happens. We’ve chosen to focus on these concerns in our answer because they’ll have a long-term influence on students, institutions, business, and society.
The addition of a three-year tuition fee freeze, on top of the four-year freeze, has not been subject to public input, so it is critical that our opinions be heard on these substantial revisions.
Universities can contribute to a brighter and more equitable future if the correct policies are in place. We will do everything possible to collaborate with the government to achieve this goal. However, we need a long-term financial plan to fund the necessary investment.
Steve West is the vice-chancellor of the University of the West of England and president of Universities UK.