UK Universities to Compete for Domestic Student Places

by Mansoor Iqbal

A long-awaited white paper, detailing the vision of David Willetts, the UK’s minister for Universities and Science, for the future of the country’s universities has been unveiled to the public.

One of its central tenets is the idea of increased competition between universities for student places, an idea which has not escaped the eye of the higher education commentariat. Private providers – which are not subject to caps on numbers – will also be invited to compete for these students.

A university must meet one of two conditions before they are permitted to claim a higher share of students: either by offering average domestic fees of under £7,500 (the amount originally anticipated by the UK’s government when raising the threshold to £9,000) or by taking on students who achieve grades of AAB or higher in their A-Level examinations.

It is estimated that there will be around 65,000 prospective undergraduates in the latter category, and an estimated 20,000 places will be offered to universities who meet the former criterion. This means that the total numbers of students universities must compete for is equivalent to around a quarter of the annual uptake of domestic undergraduates (competition on price will not apply to Scottish universities, which are free for Scottish students).

These 85,000 or so places are not, strictly speaking, extra places, as they will be removed from universities’ individual allocations of students. The total number of undergraduates will stay at much the same level. It has been argued that this number is too small, leading to students struggling to get onto oversubscribed courses.

Experts have predicted that non-elite universities who have chosen to charge the top fees will lose out on numbers as a result of these plans. High achieving students will certainly take advantage of extra places that the more prestigious universities will be able to create, and thus far lower fees have been the preserve of newer, more technical establishments. Universities which expand their numbers will also receive extra funding accordingly.

Private providers will also be vying for these places. At present, there are only five non-public bodies in the UK permitted to award degrees (ifs School of Finance, College of Law, Ashridge Business School, BPP and the University of Buckingham) but it is likely that more will appear soon, as the barriers to entry are likely to be relaxed.

Competition will be intensified by universities’ new obligations to reveal statistics such as graduate employment levels and student-staff ratios, as well as information on facilities and the opinions of current students. Inspections will be triggered if institutions are found to be wanting.

The paper also contains proposals to give added strength to Offa (the Office for Fair Access), to whom universities must justify the exceptional circumstances which permit them to charge the maximum fee levels by admitting students from across the social spectrum.

It is not yet clear on how these proposals will affect international students, whose number the UK government has proposed reducing by 230,000 over the next five years – though this is not thought to be in regard to degree students but rather students in lower level institutions, such as language schools.

The changes will apply from the 2012/13 academic year onwards.

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