A Bolt from the Blue

The announcement in the recent government Autumn Statement rather caught the sector by surprise. The complete abolition of student number controls flies in the face of Treasury rhetoric which suggested that the current student loans system is unsustainable financially. The abolition of number controls from 2015, on the face of it, further puts pressure on sustainability.

For those who have not been following the change in student number controls over recent years, let me explain that it is currently based on the ‘core’ and ‘margin’ system. Until recently, student numbers at a given institution were strictly controlled by an applied ‘quota’, with significant financial penalties for exceeding that quota. More recently, Government relaxed these controls somewhat by allowing eligible institutions to accept as many students with A-level grades of ‘AAB’ or equivalent (‘the margin’) concomitant with a reduction in the quota (‘the core’, meaning students with grades below AAB). Last year, the margin criterion was relaxed further to ‘ABB’, with a further reduction in core. The general expectation was that this would remain the status quo, or perhaps even a further relaxation of the margin to BBB.

One can only guess why Government has chosen this option now. The Chancellor indicated that the relaxation of controls, which in effect is an open cheque book for student loan numbers, will be funded by the sale of the ‘loan book’, i.e. to put this under the control of a non-Governmental organisation, meaning it disappears from the Government’s books. However, recent press reports suggest that the Chancellor has conceded that this will be insufficient to fund the shortfall. Perhaps the announcement is a prelude to a root-and-branch review of higher education funding. Irrespective, in a stroke we move closer to a ‘free-market’ in education provision.

It’s difficult to judge what this might mean for NU. On the one hand, 60,000 students failed to gain places this academic year, and the abolition of controls will presumably mean that this will not be the case in the future. On the other hand, it is likely that the majority of these candidates do not have qualifications at ABB or higher, because otherwise they would likely have secured a place given the lack of number controls. As a Russell Group institution, we are typically seeking ABB qualifications or better, and hence it is unlikely that there will be a dramatic increase in student numbers from this cohort. However, it does give us the opportunity to expand significantly in certain areas should we choose to do so, provided of course that we can compete effectively with our peer group institutions who might be interested in doing likewise. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, the key to future success once again comes back to the quality of our offering – competition just ratched up a notch.

That’s about it for this year. Best wishes to all for Christmas and the New Year!


About stevehomans

Professor Steve Homans is a structural biologist with an international reputation in the study of biomolecular interactions. He obtained his first degree and DPhil in Biochemistry at Oxford University, and secured his first academic position as Lecturer at the University of Dundee. In 1998 he received the Zeneca award from the Biochemical Society and was elected Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. Prior to his current appointment he was Dean of the Faculty of Biological Sciences at the University of Leeds. Professor Homans brings extensive expertise of academic leadership and management, with a particular emphasis on organisational change.
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