Ministers have passed the buck to universities – here are the consequences

18 Aug 2020, 13:25

After days of growing pressure, it was inevitable government and the beleaguered education secretary Gavin Williamson eventually u-turned and reverted to centre assessments rather than the now discredited algorithm.

But the idea that all problems are solved couldn’t be further from the truth. Indeed the very students government belatedly acted to try and help, may find themselves with unforeseen problems to contend with.

Student recruitment is one of the most complex activities a university undertakes each year. Williamson appears to think these numbers are plucked out of thin air.

We have a double whammy with some universities having more students than they can teach and house, while others won’t have enough students to be financially sustainable

Months of planning goes into determining capacity for specific courses, accounting for staff numbers, space, accommodation, demand and the likely pool of applicants who will have the required level of attainment.

Some courses makes a loss, and others generate a surplus, international students make a contribution and most domestic students breakeven (or for expensive subjects are taught at a loss, even with fees £9,250), so getting the calibration right across a university is a delicate balancing act.

Every year, universities make more offers than they have places, knowing that some students will fail to get the grades and others will choose to study elsewhere.

Like the process to decide what the capacity for a course should be, there are tried and tested calculations made by universities who know how many offers are required in order to arrive at the right number of students to start the course. Some courses leave extra capacity for additional students to be recruited in clearing, but the most competitive universities or courses (like medicine or architecture) will often fill all their places with students who make the grades.

So, over the last four days whilst government prevaricated, universities acted swiftly to fill their courses. But the consequence of the government U-turn means large numbers of additional students who universities had understandably ruled out, will now be eligible to enrol on top of those already with a place.

Universities will be admitting students that met the grades, those taken to fill gaps after the results last week, and now additional students they initially had to reject.

Some universities will now be overwhelmed, with only a matter of weeks to prepare for larger numbers than planned. This on top of a decrease in student deferrals, with coronavirus induced bleak labour market conditions and limited gap year opportunities, are largely deciding to proceed directly to higher education.

Some universities now face practical problems about where they can physically accommodate students in lecture theatres, seminar rooms and accommodation blocks. Already having to contend with social distancing, it will not be possible to accommodate large numbers of additional students. Simply put: laboratories, extra bedrooms and larger lecture theatres can’t just be magicked overnight.

But there will also be a displacement effect between universities. With the total number of students now eligible for the most competitive courses and universities increased, these universities will be forced to take them (and won’t be able to decline those additional students they offered places to last week). There will be a knock-on effect, through the sector, where the least competitive courses will now find they might not have enough students to go round as students begin to “trade up”. Partly to mitigate this problem, DfE introduced caps on university recruitment for 2020-21 to help stabilise the sector, but these caps were scrapped as part of the U-turn.

So, we now have a double whammy with some universities having more students than they can teach and house (but can’t turn any away), whilst other universities won’t have enough students to be financially sustainable.

Students now rejoicing the news they have a place at their first choice university, might find come the start of term campuses and lecture theatres over capacity, no beds left in Halls of Residence and social distancing universities had been planning now in tatters.

Whilst government eventually acted in their own self-interest staving off political pressure, they have passed the problem onto universities and their students to deal with the consequences.

Aaron Porter is Chair of BPP University, a governor of Goldsmiths University of London and an education consultant. He was previously President of the National Union of Students in 2010-11.

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