The coalition government has attracted fresh controversy to its higher education policy by choosing to remove the limit on the number of students UK universities may recruit with AAB grades at A-level. Having axed state university funding by 80%, ministers have told universities they will have to compete with one another to attract students, with the amount of funding they will get now closely tied to undergraduate enrolment numbers. Hence a “bidding war” has been sparked for pupils with the best grades, as the more of these students universities can attract, the more funding they will be able to secure for their courses.
However there are two major flaws in the government’s scheme, which University and College Union secretary Sally Hunt described as a desperate bid on the part of the government to “drive down costs after it spectacularly botched its sums on funding.” The first problem is that whilst ministers have emphasised time and again the enormity of measures that will be taken to ensure the new tuition fees scheme does not have a negative impact on students from disadvantaged backgrounds, this new decision gives universities a huge incentive to offer scholarships and bursaries not to those who really need them, but to the students with the strongest academic records.
Sir Steve Smith, President of Universities UK explained that the threat of losing funding was so great that institutions would “do what they can to lower the cost of attending university” for higher achieving students. But as Shadow Universities Minister Gareth Thomas pointed out, this could have a direct and devastating knock-on effect on financial support for those students who really need it. He explained: “money which might have been earmarked…to help students from disadvantaged backgrounds go to university is instead used to try and help recruit people with very good grades”.
So as the government flounders, desperately trying to drive the price of tuition fees down closer to the £7500 average it estimated, it seems once again that students from disadvantaged backgrounds and low-income families must pay the price.
The second major problem with the scheme is that it forces universities into direct competition with one another, vying for students and funding and focussing their attention on a bidding war for the brightest students rather than on equal access policies that would help those from poorer backgrounds to attend university. Hunt described the new competitive market being created in higher education as a “recipe for disaster”, declaring that “cut-throat competition” will quickly replace a “spirit of collaboration” between universities.
The likely outcome will be the failure of some universities and courses altogether, with arts and non-vocational courses in particular expected to be badly affected by the changes. With English universities facing their toughest challenge yet, this new competitive spirit of individual gain before the sharing of resources and ideas will only cause more damage to an already stricken sector.