Taking the Long View on Student Number Control

Tony Strike, University Secretary at the University of Sheffield, shares his views on student number control measures in light of COVID-19.

It became a cliché in higher education strategy circles to say that we were living through unprecedented change, but the change brought by COVID-19 went unpredicted by the seers and prophets of HE. Its true Higher Education policy has altered over the last 10 years, from the Browne Review to the creation of the OfS, and it would perhaps be simpler to ask when we were not living through a period of change.

However, even compared to the sometimes seismic events of the last decade, the beginning of the 2020s has brought unprecedented challenges. A time perhaps to take the long view.

Coronavirus has brought many of the day-to-day functions of universities to a standstill.

While institutions are gamely grappling with the challenge of moving their provision online and ensuring that students continue to receive the very best education, our campuses stand almost empty with many academics and professional services staff working from home, student accommodation blocks depleted of students, and all but essential research suspended.

Institutions are confronting what the impact of COVID-19 will mean for their recruitment of home and international students in the coming academic year. In the midst of this many now foresee or even advocate a return of student number controls, which the Government and the UUK have floated in response to some institutions’ behaviour in moving many of their offers to applicants to unconditional.

This idea is not exactly a new one. Student Number Controls (SNCs) were introduced in England in 2009-10, and they were gone by 2015-16. My own spell as a Director of Strategy and Planning in two universities spanned this period. The form of control that they exerted within that relatively short existence changed year on year. There has never been anything approaching a stable control mechanism. However, by looking at the short history of student number controls, it can help us discern why some now advocate for their return.

The Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) enforced student number controls following government overspends on student support in 2008-09. By 2012, student number controls were running in Wales and Scotland too. This put university central planning into a key role. Calculating teaching grant values based on types of students in different price groups, collecting intake aspirations internally, and running large (and I mean very large) spreadsheets linked to income forecasts to drive admissions behaviour were all par for the course.

Universities paid a great deal of attention to hitting student number targets and intake quality, as well as the various widening participation goals, in order to avoid the penalties of over or under recruiting outside of tolerance bands. The necessary command and control mechanisms drove a great deal of institutional behaviour, and not always the behaviour intended.

The Browne Review published in 2010 recommended minimum tariff controls rather than number controls to ration access, with fee income replacing teaching grants. After two years of incrementally removing number controls at two different tariff points, the so-called “Willetts revolution” removed them completely. HEFCE of course went with them, but that is another story.

Now we have a regulated market and the Office for Students. This was more than an administrative revolution. The spreadsheet industry went. Also gone were the days of applicants being turned away from the University of their choice because of government limits on the numbers of students each institution was permitted to accept. Students were no longer forced to accept insurance places at their second or third choice universities because of a centrally forced distribution. The new principle was that if applicants had the grades, they could go where they wanted and their money followed.

It was a crucial part of the Willetts escapology formula that the Government should not decide how many students should go to university or indeed how many could go to each university. Admissions became student-led, rather than government or institution-led. Students at the heart of the system was the new trope.

That is not to say, however, that the removal of student number controls will not have its challengers, and it is understandable why some advocate for their return.

The ONS decision in 2018 that the recording of student loans as conventional loans by the Government was inappropriate has fundamentally changed how they are accounted for as it did not previously take into account the contingency element of the repayments (the so-called RAB charge.) To put it another way, the loan lending pot was no longer bottomless.

Second, the demographic upturn in the 18-year old population beginning in 2021 should bring increasing numbers of home applicants to the doors of universities for the next decade. Add to this a surge in demand when uncertainty around coronavirus diminishes alongside higher unemployment and the Government may decide it again needs a control mechanism on the supply side of higher education.

This does not explain the sudden call for the reintroduction of number controls now. This call is not about controlling the costs of a long run growth forecast, but instead attempts to control a scramble during a predicted shortage of applicants.

For that, we have to look to the behaviour of some universities during this crisis. The rationale for student number controls at this moment in time is with the hope of achieving some ‘stability’ during the COVID-19 outbreak. The Government fears a ‘Wild West’ type scenario, with recruiting institutions incentivised to adopt what it views as bad behaviour, mis-selling, if you like, to attract the numbers it needs from a more limited pool of students, including through an increased use of conditional unconditional offers. The OfS has recently extended its moratorium on unconditional offers until Monday 20 April as it continues to weigh its options in preventing this kind of predicted behaviour.

The sector, in the form of representative bodies like the Russell Group and Universities UK, is trying to agree a collective position that will limit the possibility of further government or regulatory intervention in an area that has recently been seen under the heading of institutional autonomy. If there is to be a reintroduction of student number controls, then whether it will be by self-regulation by the sector or through intervention will be an important factor.

Nevertheless, the designers must answer four questions.

How will student number control protect students from poor market practices?

These could include unconditional offers, marketing, promotional add-ons, and all the other techniques that are the consequences of a market created by replacing teaching grants with fee income per student. Control against expansion in one place does not stop shortages in another. Nor is it a guarantee of a fair admissions system. There is no agreed code of practice that universities have all signed up to when it comes to admissions, and although responsibility for that lies as much with the sector as it does with the Government and the regulator, there are questions about what the impact, if any, of student number controls would be on that behaviour.

How will any number control system ensure that student’s choices are respected and that they are not simply turned away from their first choice institution despite having achieved the grades to study there?

There is likely to be a significant change in the willingness of students to travel away from home post-coronavirus. If they cannot go where they choose they may simply defer, rather than take their second best choice, so the Government must take account of that.

What mechanism in the controls will ensure that the sector remains vibrant and institutional growth remains possible?

Institutions with applicant demand, or high REF, TEF or LEO outcomes, would understandably argue that they should have the capacity to grow their student intake in line with their increasing quality of provision and applicant choices. Would student number control simply protect those programmes with low value outcomes in the name of stability?

What is going to be the fair basis for any supply side control?

Do universities bid for places? Alternatively, is it to be formulaic? Applications per place is a measure of latent demand and might make a good leading indicator. Students put their choices into UCAS and could do so in priority order, so places follow applicant intentions subject to an overall limit. It is not simple.

The worst solution would be to use last year’s intake or an average, say, of the previous three years of intakes, which would be to drive forward guided by what you can see by looking in the rear view mirror, removing any idea of a dynamic market or choice. The next worst solution might be student number forecasts, which would turn them from a reliable management tool for judging likely capacity and income into a statistic for gaming. Who can objectively predict the future now?

All this debate though, focused on Home Undergraduates as it is, misses the bigger picture.

International student recruitment and research sit alongside the education of Home students in the full economy of universities. The lack of Home fee inflation, the under funding of STEM undergraduate education and the demographic downturn on Home demand has meant that for many universities, particularly those with sizeable Engineering and Science provision, the only way to sustain high quality education, research and postgraduate education has been through growing the number of international students and then cross-subsidising.

The stability risk related to COVID-19 is not that Home students defer, or go local, it is that international students do not turn-up in the same numbers and that the absence of this income this puts the UK’s research capacity and capability at risk. Home UG student number control at the institutional level was a solution to something once, but it is not the solution to the existential crisis that looms.

There are many other issues that need to be addressed to ensure the sustainability and vibrancy of the higher education sector. The systemic under funding of research, subsidised by the recruitment of international students, is one. The lack of home undergraduate fee inflation is another. The short-term loss of international student intakes is a more significant system level risk than the short-term distribution of home undergraduate students. Student number controls are just one piece of the puzzle, and they alone cannot solve the short-term and long-term challenges the sector now faces. To design an adequate future SNC mechanism the designers must take the long view and design it to manage the likely additional costs of a decade of growth, not to manage the distribution of income in a crisis.

Tony Strike is University Secretary at the University of Sheffield, convenor of the AHUA North Group, and was editor of ‘Higher Education Strategy and Planning: a professional guide’ published by Routledge in 2018. The opinions expressed in this article are his own.