Talented students may lose out on places at top universities (UK)

By Bob Burgess

Government student number controls will penalise institutions that have worked hard to pull their weight on inclusion. Figures showing how many students from poorer backgrounds are now going to university published on today should make us proud.Attracting these students, and supporting them through university, brings benefits not only to them but also to their institutions, and to the country’s future economic prosperity.

That is why, since 2002, policymakers have set benchmarks for the number of students from state schools and working-class backgrounds that institutions should recruit. These benchmarks take into account an institution’s subject mix and entrance scores. Last year, the University of Leicester was the only institution among the Times Top 20 universities to meet these benchmarks. The latest figures show it has met them again this year.But, while the government has previously praised inclusion and widening access to higher education, it is now putting it at risk.

Its plan to remove 20,000 places and open these up to bids from institutions charging lower fees, while allowing unlimited recruitment of applicants with two A-grades and a B or better at A-level, rewards institutions that are not pulling their weight on inclusion, and means many talented students will lose out on places at top universities. Allowing universities to recruit as many of these students as they want, while reducing opportunities for those who just miss these arbitrary grades, opens up choice for middle-class applicants from good schools but closes it for many others.

Last year’s higher education white paper aimed to put students at the heart of the system. It assumed that informed students making free choices would drive quality upwards and encourage institutions to price their courses competitively. While many in the sector have mixed views about whether this will be the case, it is at least a coherent position. But, in order for it to work, three things must be in place – better information for students, variable tuition fees and the freeing up of student numbers so that places follow demand. We largely have the first two, but student numbers have only been partially freed. This creates, in effect, a half-market that rewards socially elitist institutions while penalising many of those who have worked hard to improve students’ experiences of university and received excellent scores for student satisfaction. The result may well be a contraction in the very part of the sector best placed to deliver the white paper’s core aims.

If the government believes student choice drives up quality, why restrict it for some and extend it for just a sub-set of students from more privileged backgrounds, who are in no better position to exercise that choice than anyone else? Far from objecting in principle to the idea of a market, or liberalisation of student numbers, I believe that liberalisation should go further. The sector would be closer to a real market if the range of student places outside of the student number controls was extended.

If money is the issue, there is no evidence that allowing institutions to recruit unlimited numbers of students achieving lower grades than AAB will have any dramatic effect on the student loan book. If anything, data from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service suggests that the greatest growth in recent years has been among the AAB students. And, if you follow the logic of the government’s argument, liberalisation of student numbers should drive down price in any case. Nor do I agree with the argument that the sector needs a period of stability. The current arrangements are highly unstable, and many institutions are already finding it difficult to plan financially when forced to deal with a policy of creating a market that has been only half implemented. The government needs to introduce greater liberalisation of numbers now.

Much good work has been done in recent years to extend higher education opportunities to a wider group of students, and universities are likely to have to work even harder on social inclusion after this year’s rise in tuition fees. As the latest performance indicators show, some institutions have done much better in this area than others. It will be ironic if those universities that have been most successful at putting students at the heart of their systems are forced to recruit less of them in future.

Professor Sir Robert Burgess is vice-chancellor of the University of Leicester

Source: Guardian Professional http://www.guardian.co.uk/higher-education-network/blog/2012/mar/29/talented-students-may-lose-out