29 Mar 2012

Universities face brave new world with fewer students

Social Affairs Editor and Presenter

There will be an estimated 11,000 fewer university places this year. But where will the cuts hit and who will suffer? Channel 4 News Social Affairs Editor Jackie Long takes a look.

There will be an estimated 11,000 fewer university places this year. (Reuters)

In essence, today marks the latest milestone in the government’s radical shift towards more competition in the world of higher education, and the truth is no one quite knows how it will pan out.

To start with, there will be a cut of around 7,000 places which will, in effect, cancel out a 2 per cent rise in numbers the government allowed last year to cope with a bulge in the number of students trying to get in before the introduction of fees.

But there have been two other key changes introduced this year which will also affect the numbers, though precisely how is uncertain.

First, the Higher Education Funding Council (HEFC) has scrapped the cap on the number of high performing students – those with AAB grades or equivalent – that an institution can attract. If a university has the facilities, it can take as many of these students as it wants.


The second major change is that the government has withdrawn around 9 per cent of student places from every institution to put into a “pot” of around 20,000 places. They will effectively be “auctioned” off to those universities which have dropped their fees to 7,500 pounds or lower. The scheme is all part of the government’s promise to limit the number of universities charging the full £9,000 fees and thereby potentially deterring some of the poorest students.

Analysts have told me that many of the universities which have decided to charge the full £9,000 will inevitably take fewer students this year, but that financially they will still be better off than under the old funding arrangements.

But it’s the institutions who have decided to lower their fees who may be taking the biggest gamble. If they don’t win as many of the 20,000 places as they need, they may well hit financial trouble. In the brave new world of competition the government will argue, it’s the law of the jungle. It’s up to the colleges to make sure they’re offering the quality of teaching and the variety of courses which will make them popular to students.

‘Demand outstrips supply’

A crucial part of this change is that the 20,000 student places up for grabs will not all go to universities – many will go to further education colleges – so while the headlines about universities offering thousands fewer places may be correct, the number of students who actually go on to study for a degree somewhere will not necessarily fall by that number.

But what of the students? Will fewer places mean more students losing out?

According to Professor Michael Farthing, the chairman of the 1994 Group (of Universities) and Vice Chancellor of the University of Sussex, it means exactly that.

“Many excellent students will be denied places at their first choice universities. The number of students universities are allowed to recruit has been cut across the sector…this represents a push to cut-price education.”

The response from the HEFC?

A spokesperson told me: “Every year, thousands of students do not get places; demand regularly outstrips supply. This year will be no different.”