One of the issues that has exercised universities across the country this year concerns undergraduate entry. As many will know, the system changed this year, and it has been more difficult than ever to ensure that we get the correct number of students enrolling at NU in the autumn. Securing the correct number is very important since if we recruit below our numbers, then our financial plans will be jeopardised, and in the worst (but extremely unlikely) case a degree programme might not be sustainable. Conversely, if we over-recruit there are severe financial penalties imposed by the government. The whole process is a complex balancing act, especially since we cannot count exactly how many students have arrived for study at NU until the census in December.
This year the process has been even more complicated. In an effort to drive up student quality, the Government announced that universities can recruit as many students with AAB grades (or equivalent) and higher – the so-called ‘AAB+’ cohort. While this is in principle very good news because universities can expand those courses that attract the very best students (if they wish), there is a sting in the tail – the Government simultaneously reduced by 20,000 the ‘core’ quota of students (those who attained less than AAB) that we would ordinarily be free to recruit subject to our chosen entrance requirements. This core has not been lost, but has been redistributed to universities that meet certain criteria including lower fees – these universities do not include NU and the remainder of the Russell Group. So universities like NU that wish to maintain or expand student numbers in effect must recruit higher quality students. The waters are further muddied by the fact there was an overall reduction in the number of students applying to university this year.
In effect then all schools at NU were assigned a target for ‘AAB+’ students, and a target for ‘core’ students. Critically, if any school was unable to attract the relevant number of students with AAB+ , then the only way to make up student numbers is to recruit students with less than AAB+ qualifications from core. If every school needed to do this then it’s clear to see that the core allocation would be exhausted and we would under-recruit overall. There is clearly potential for disaster here, which is why staff involved in admissions have been working very hard behind the scenes to minimise the potential risks. Nonetheless, there have been some sleepless nights for faculty PVCs!
So how did we do? Fortunately, very much according to plan. As a Faculty we have managed to attain our students numbers or thereabouts – the process has not yet formally completed and as mentioned above we will not have an accurate number until December. Thanks to all those who have worked so hard to achieve a satisfactory outcome for SAgE.
Looking ahead, we must not be complacent. Some schools managed to recruit significantly above their AAB+ target whereas others had to work much harder. We need to learn from the more successful units and ensure that all schools are potentially able to exceed their target next year. Speaking of which, there will be further changes for 2013 entry – we will be able to recruit as many ‘ABB+’ students as we wish, but again the rub will be that the ‘core’ quota will be reduced. In practice this means that we will need to be even more vigilant in our efforts to recruit the best students. While Newcastle is a wonderful place to study and live, our ability to recruit the best students (and indeed the best staff) will ultimately depend on the quality of our offering. Hence our focus this year on ‘Strategy into Action’ , which principally concerns the quality of our research and learning & teaching. Given the recent and forthcoming changes to undergraduate entry, our undivided attention on these actions will be even more critical.