AUSTRALIAN EXPERIENCE RAISES CONCERNS ABOUT REMOVING CAP ON STUDENT NUMBERS
Richard Adams (Education Editor) in The Guardian (Thursday, 7 August 2014) reports concerns expressed by Russell Group on universities about the impact of the Government's policy to remove the cap on undergraduate recruitment next year. The Guardian article, entitled 'Top universities urge scrapping free-for-all student recruitment plan' states that:
Wendy Piatt, the director of the Russell Group of universities, said the HEPI report on Australia’s experience raised “serious concerns” about the ending of firm controls on student numbers. Photograph: Sarah Lee for the Guardian
The Russell Group of leading universities has called on the government to drop plans for a free-for-all in undergraduate recruitment next year, following publication of a report that suggests the policy could have disastrous financial consequences.
Although the government expects undergraduate enrolments to rise in 2015 once existing caps on student recruitment are removed, the report said evidence from the same policy in Australia saw student numbers balloon well beyond official forecasts, forcing the government there to spend hundreds of millions of dollars more on higher education.
"One of the things no one knows with absolute certainty is how many studentswill roll up when the number caps come off," said Hillman, a former special advisor to David Willetts as higher education minister and director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, which compiled the report.
"It would be naive to think the policy will be simple to roll out, especially if higher education suffers further cuts after the 2015 election," Hillman warned.
The change – announced by chancellor George Osborne in the autumn statement – allows universities in England to recruit as many students as they want from September 2015. Osborne said the expansion would be funded by selling off student loans – but that policy has recently come into question, with business secretary Vince Cable saying the sale would not go ahead.
Wendy Piatt, director-general of the Russell Group of universities – which represents research-intensive universities such as Oxford and Manchester – said the HEPI report on Australia's experience raised "serious concerns" about the ending of firm controls on student numbers.
"Now that the government no longer intends to use the sale of the student loan book to fund the uncapping of student numbers in England, we would urge it to abandon the policy or at least consider much more robust ways of controlling costs and quality," Piatt said.
"We would be extremely concerned if the substantial funds required to pay for additional students were taken from the already very stretched budget for research and higher education. It would be very worrying if this policy leads to less funding per student. Good teaching requires proper levels of investment."
While Australia spent years preparing the groundwork for open enrolments in its universities, the English approach "was put together quickly and remains fuzzy," according to Hillman, including the Treasury's forecast of an additional 60,000 students a year.
"It's as good a guess as anyone else's guess – but it is a finger in the air. When the Australian government went through a similar process, they ended up underfunding the policy," Hillman said.
"Even if only 60,000 people extra turn up in 2015-16, as the sector works out how the system works, they'll look for new opportunities, and one of those opportunities is offering more access to higher education courses and getting people in that way."
The Department for Business, Innovation & Skills did not reply to requests for comment.
Professor Steve West, chair of the University Alliance group of newer universities such as University of Portsmouth and Coventry University, said Australia's example was "incredibly important" for England.
"We need to set out a longer-term plan for solving the problem and creating a sustainable higher education system," said Prof West, vice-chancellor of the University of the West of England, in Bristol.
"The UK needs to ensure it is able to grow the graduate population, as our global competitors continue to do, and to encourage talent from right across society."
The report by Australian academic Andrew Norton, who co-wrote a review of the policy for the Australian government, also suggests that "fee deregulation" is a logical progression from opening up enrolment without limit on numbers or qualifications. That would potentially allow universities to compete on tuition costs, with the more prestigious universities able to charge more while others opted to attract students through lower fees.
The Australian experience also showed a drop in the average level of qualifications of students enrolling – offering more access opportunities for students who currently struggle to find places in universities.
The new policy opens up unexplored possibilities for private institutions and colleges offering access to higher education courses, designed to prepare students without appropriate qualifications for undergraduate study.
Pam Tatlow, chief executive of Million+, a think-tank supported by universities, said the Australian experience showed deregulation created risks for students, taxpayers and universities. "A free-for-all approach may be attractive in principle but as Australia shows only too clearly it is by no means plain sailing," Tatlow said