In the aftermath of the tuition fees chaos, and before those students affected by it have even taken up their places at university, the government has announced yet more plans to ‘shake up’ university policy for 2013.
The controversial policy to allow unlimited places for those students who achieved AAB grades for 2012 is to be extended next year to cover all students achieving grades of ABB and above, a significant increase.
Whilst this seems like a good idea, in so far as it is likely to increase the numbers of students able to attend their first choice of university, commentators and academic experts are extremely cautious about the idea of implementing a new scheme so soon after the admissions process has already been through such great upheaval.
Major organisations such as Universities UK and the University and College Union have called repeatedly for the government to wait and see how the initial set of reforms pan out before jumping in to formulate brand new policy.
Whilst both bodies support the idea of increasing places for high-achieving students in principle, they are deeply concerned about the wisdom of rushing on to new changes before anybody has yet seen the results of the first wave of tuition fees adjustments.
It is not impossible that the enormous changes made to the university admissions system as a result of rocketing tuition fees and enormous budget cuts might have unexpected adverse effects, such as reducing the overall number of students taking up places. In addition, the scheme to award unlimited places to those students achieving AAB may encourage more students to attend better universities, as institutions will no longer be restricted in the numbers of places they are able to allocate. This could lead to a dearth of applicants taking up places at some of the country’s poorer universities, many of them in urban areas, which traditionally cater to those from more disadvantaged backgrounds.
As the new government tuition fees plan effectively removes the stability of state funding for higher education institutions, this could have the unexpected result of leaving those universities which cater most effectively to the poorest students stranded in financial no-man’s land. The end result could be a top-heavy education sector where the best universities increase their class sizes exponentially, reducing the overall quality of the academic experience, whilst those newer universities which have not yet managed to consolidate their reputations are left high and dry, inadvertently disadvantaging the poorest students further still!
Whilst this is hopefully an extreme, nightmare scenario that is unlikely to manifest in reality, the point is that nobody is quite sure exactly what the impact of the enormous policy changes to the higher education sector will be until the dust has settled and the students have actually arrived. So starting already to make serious alterations to the scheme for the following academic year seems rather rash and ill-thought-through on the part of the coalition government. As University and College Union general secretary Sally Hunt aptly put it, “this looks like the triumph of ideology over evidence-based policy making.”