Cap on student numbers will deepen overseas fees reliance

Higher education leaders in the United Kingdom have come out fighting against proposed government reforms to post-18 education and funding which they claim would turn back the clock on social mobility and hit the government’s own ‘levelling-up’ agenda.

Consultations on the proposed changes, which are part of the UK government’s response to a review of higher education funding in England led by Sir Philip Augar, have just ended – with university vice-chancellors condemning plans to cap student numbers and tie student loans to minimum grade requirements.

But, as they direct their anger over linking loans to access and the impact on poorer students, an expert on international higher education has warned that the UK government’s plans will make British universities even more reliant on international student tuition fees to survive and prosper.

Dr Janet Ilieva, founder and director of the global consultancy Education Insight, told University World News: “Any proposed cap on numbers is a cap on the opportunity for home students in the UK and will further incentivise international student recruitment for growth-seeking higher education institutions.”

Plugging growing deficits

“With home students’ tuition fees frozen for another two years and a continuous shortfall in research funding, many universities are unable to expand on the domestic front and there will be increased pressure on international tuition fees to plug growing deficits for teaching and subsidise research in the UK.”

Ilieva said, aside from the “strong arguments against limiting opportunities for home students by restricting student loans to those with minimum qualifications”, the proposals to cap the number of students going to university in the UK “will make it impossible for UK universities to grow without increasing their reliance on international students”.

Professor Steve West, president of Universities UK and vice-chancellor of the University of the West of England (UWE), writing in Times Higher Education on 9 May, said that while “the government’s proposals to reintroduce student number caps in England or to impose minimum entry requirements have long been trailed… universities’ scepticism remains undiminished”.

Reservations over minimum entry requirements

He said Universities UK, which represents 140 institutions in the country, had just submitted its response to the government’s consultation on the higher education reforms and made clear its strong opposition to a cap on student numbers as well as its “reservations about the practicalities of minimum entry requirements”.

He claimed financial sustainability was only part of the reasoning and said a student number cap would hurt those from disadvantaged backgrounds the most and inevitably lead to a reduction of courses and choice, which would “be hugely limiting to those who cannot afford to move away from their home towns for university”.

West also warned of “practical issues with the government’s proposals on minimum entry requirements” – with a pass in GCSE English and mathematics being the government’s main option.

He said: “The government has already highlighted that several exceptions to this policy would be required – it would not apply to mature students looking to retrain, for example. But there are many other hurdles to overcome to ensure that this policy does not increase inequalities.”

Educational opportunity not evenly spread

“Educational opportunity is not spread evenly across England, and using a minimum entry requirement bluntly would worsen this, preventing universities from identifying those with the potential to succeed by taking account of their full circumstances,” he said.

West pointed to widening participation data from the Office for Students which showed that students who entered higher education with the lowest reported A-level results had continuation rates higher than the sector average.

He warned that the universities most affected by minimum entry requirements would be those that recruit high proportions of students from disadvantaged backgrounds, including those in towns which are in “the government’s priority areas for levelling-up”, such as Wolverhampton, Middlesbrough and Bolton.

The proposals are expected to be included in a new higher education bill, but UK university leaders and experts have been lining up to fight the proposals since they were first mooted, as University World News reported back in February.

Proposals could send shockwaves

Diana Beech, chief executive officer of London Higher, the umbrella body for more than 40 universities and higher education colleges in the capital and an adviser to three government universities’ ministers, told University World News: “The government’s higher education reform proposals could send shockwaves through London’s university sector, shutting the door on future loan access for thousands of young Londoners.”

She said: “While the capital's universities may be thought to be in a strong position to capitalise on international student recruitment to make up any financial shortfall, there are three flaws to this argument: first, not all London universities are able to recruit internationally, such as those training the nation’s future key workers.

“Second, the international market is already under immense strain due to COVID; and third, it begs the question whether it is right to create a two-tier system where local Londoners are locked out but higher fee-paying international students are hooked in.”

Professor Andy Westwood, professor of government practice and vice dean of humanities at the University of Manchester and an expert on the UK’s government’s so-called ‘levelling-up’ agenda, told University World News: “I think government has a number of objectives – and not all sensible or advisable ones.

“They are aiming to save costs, via loan outlays, and reduce the number of full-time undergraduate honours students, partly to save money and partly to address concerns over some courses not enabling loan repayment due to low earnings of graduates.

“But on top of that there is also a political incentive in that UK graduates are increasingly less likely to vote Conservative.”

‘Not proposing to bar anyone’

A spokesman for the Department for Education (DfE) told The Guardian newspaper: “We have not proposed to bar anyone from going to university: rather, we are starting a conversation on minimum entry requirements and asking whether young people should be pushed straight into a full degree, without being prepared for that level of study.

“We are proposing exemptions for mature students, those with a foundation year, or appropriate certificate or diploma and are supporting these alternative routes through consulting on reducing the cost of foundation years and through our new lifelong loan entitlement, which will provide many different routes to improve a person’s career and life opportunities.”

The spokesman claimed: “These exemptions would mean 1% or fewer of total entrants would be affected by either of the minimum eligibility requirement proposals.”

However, as The Guardian noted, the DfE’s own equality impact assessment of the proposals found that restricting access to loans “would disproportionately affect students who are black and from ethnic minority groups”.

Nic Mitchell is a UK-based freelance journalist and PR consultant specialising in European and international higher education. He blogs at www.delacourcommunications.com.