The decision earlier in the year by the current government to remove the cap on undergraduate student numbers from 2015 was the subject of an article in The Guardian yesterday. This decision in effect means that universities can recruit as many undergraduates as they choose. I think it’s fair to say that this policy caught everyone in the sector by surprise, because the media focus at the time was largely on the affordability (or rather the non-affordability) of the student loan-book. Despite this policy change, the system can hardly be described as a free market since the fee cap remains at £9000. Moreover, the vast majority of universities are charging the maximum fee (only ten institutions will charge less in 2014/15), resulting in a clustering at the top end of the fee scale.
At one level, the removal of the cap on student numbers will be welcomed by organisations such as ourselves, because we can set our own quota. However, at another level it is likely dramatically to introduce more competition in the system. We are already seeing an increase in unconditional offers by some institutions in an effort to get ahead of the pack. Indeed, in SAgE we have trialled this for entry into computational sciences this year. The key point is that every organisation needs to differentiate itself from the competition. There will clearly be winners and losers – since the total pool of undergraduate numbers is fixed, if one institution decides to grow student numbers then another must lose market share. According to the article, some universities have expanded numbers by 35%, whereas others, such as a number of post-1992 institutions, have seen entrants drop by more than 20%. There is every possibility that the discrepancy will be more pronounced as the student numbers controls are relaxed. With a general election around the corner, it’s anyone’s guess what the future holds. Will the fee cap be remove completely? Possibly, although a Labour government has pledged to reduce fees to £6k.
It’s difficult to know how best to plan under the circumstances, but we must clearly be vigilant. As I’ve noted previously, the key to our future success is quality, quality, quality. But we also need to be clear about the distinctiveness of our offering. We must explain with crystal clarity why, for example, an undergraduate should choose to study Chemistry at NU rather than another local university. While we have had a very successful recruitment campaign in recent years, we mustn’t become complacent and assume that the same will be true going forwards. As we develop a new vision for the faculty to coincide with the outcome of REF 2014, we need to ensure that we focus on what it is we are really good at, and how this sets us apart from the competition. Any input into our thinking on this would be very welcome.