The topic was ‘Will the removal of the student numbers cap change the culture within our universities for better or worse?’ Brian Hipkin, Vice Chair of AMOSSHE and Dean of Students at Regent’s University London chaired the discussion.
Participants included representatives from the National Union of Students, the Russell Group, GuildHE, and AMOSSHE member organisations.
The discussion covered a number of areas, including the potential outcome of the UK government elections, opportunities for innovation within the sector, and concerns surrounding services to students.
Here is a summary of the main points that were discussed during the course of the meeting. This paper does not represent the policy stances or convictions of AMOSSHE or any of the groups in attendance. The paper is intended as a record of the issues considered and a starting point for further conversations.
Taking into account the impending election, is the removal of the student numbers cap definitely going to happen or is it truly dependant on who gets in?
(Please note that this event took place before the UK general election, and therefore this question was asked on the basis of potential changes in line with a new government.)
It is unlikely that the decision to remove the student numbers gap will be rolled back, especially in light of a Conservative majority, because they have made a commitment to remove the cap. The government is moving higher education closer to a market-driven approach in the belief that a supply-and-demand system will be more financially sustainable.
The fact that the economy is improving would suggest that the removal of the cap will continue on its current course. However, there might be a more phased approach given some of the other changes to higher education, such as the DSA (Disabled Students’ Allowance) changes and the fact that alternative providers are taking up more time at present.
Some of the group thought that funding issues and the cost of living will mean that even if the cap is removed as planned the impact will be minimal, because student numbers are unlikely to increase dramatically given current financial burdens.
When the numbers cap does come off there is likely to be additional pressure on Student Services. More focus on service quality might lead to longer working days or reduced holiday breaks as universities look for new ways to increase student numbers within existing resources.
There is likely to be a gap in funding with the removal of the student numbers cap, especially since there has been no indication of any additional selling of the student loan book, which would most likely need to happen to balance the books.
As such there is likely to be pressure to remove the student fee cap to help institutions be sustainable within the context of continued cuts by the Conservatives. There is nothing to show that there is a connection between the two at the moment, but this is certainly a possibility.
An alternative solution might be a more staggered approach to student fees, with higher cost subjects having a removed fee cap and lower cost subjects, or courses with a focus on national needs, seeing a cap on fees, to encourage growth in line with national and financial interests.
Institutions are unlikely to jump straight into expanding their estates given the current political situation. New buildings will take years to complete and gain approval and therefore the impact of increased student numbers in this traditional manner is unlikely to take hold for a number of years.
Other more inventive methods that universities might employ are online courses, increasing evening and night time based courses to maximise the university estate. Alternatively, we are likely to see some institutions seeking to establish their brand with specialist courses, and looking to stabilise their student numbers rather than increase them in the light of increased competition. Strategic partnerships or mergers are also a viable way forward and being explored by some institutions.
Could strategic partnerships with further education and schools be a way of diversifying university growth?
Some institutions are already looking at partnerships with schools to deliver PGCEs (Postgraduate Certificate in Education), which would help the progression rates to affiliated institutions and potentially increase resources that are available to the school and higher education provider.
Further education has seen the biggest cuts to funding as well as the biggest growth in student numbers to date, and strategic partnerships, certainly based around subject areas such as maths, would benefit further education colleges. Further and higher education institutions could work in partnership to deliver courses and create a more seamless transition for students from further to higher education. These partnerships would create a more cohesive provision of Student Services across the two as well.
There was a strong feeling in the room that there is more likely to be an increase in institutions finding their niche market rather than a blanket increase in student numbers. The danger with a blanket increase is controlling the quality of education and student experience alongside the expansion of physical space that would be necessary.
The group thought that there would still be an appetite for international students to attend UK institutions if the quality remained high for teaching and learning. Some people in the group thought that some institutions may look solely to continue to grow their international student numbers. They may use small pots of funding to encourage international students to attend their institution, and we may also see more demand for satellite campuses either in the UK or internationally. This would seriously test the consistency of services that universities could provide for students through Student Services.
The quality of accommodation, the influence and advancement of digital communications and quality of service are all seen as contributing factors drawing in international students, and this is likely to increase student numbers.
The overall picture of higher education will not look hugely different while people test out the different approaches within their institutions and minimise the risk of failure. But we are likely to see degrees lasting two years instead of three or four years. There are likely to be more cuts to higher education funding, which will influence institutions not to build new teaching space to accommodate higher numbers of students. Given the uncertainty and the strain in budgets we are likely to see a number of small institutions on the periphery that either boom or bust in the market. Growth is likely to be seen in an increase in organisational mergers rather than increased student numbers. This would affect Student Services structures and lead to challenges in cross-campus provision.
The group felt that it will be interesting to see the effect of the postgraduate loans coming in, and whether this will be a motivating factor in increasing the number of part-time students that study.
There are many areas and inventive ways that universities may seek to increase student numbers to diversify their offering and hold within a more market-driven sector. Given the uncertainty of funding and incentives for increasing student numbers, there is unlikely to be a sudden increase in traditional courses; instead, perhaps more risk-adverse, inventive methods will be adopted or tested. Student Services should position themselves at the heart of these conversations to ensure they are able to ensure the student experience is a central element to any discussions that may take place.