I have been interested to read recently about the move to provide additional funding for postgraduate students at the cost of scrapping an undergraduate scholarship programme, in an attempt to allow a wider range of people to engage with postgraduate learning.
However, the more interesting story that I haven’t been hearing people talking about quite so much is the recent Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) consultation on “student number controls”. Measures to control student numbers started around 2008, but have been implemented on an increasingly stringent level ever since. The controls have escalated mostly in response to the rise in fees, the spike of which was 2010/11 academic year.
The current system of student number controls has some troubling implications, in particular for those students from underprivileged backgrounds, and I am of the firm belief that it is potentially far more damaging than the low take-up of postgraduate courses.
In the current system, Universities are able to accept applicants from as many entrants as they wish with UCAS entry grades of AAB or more. However, the number of students a University can admit with lower entry grades than this is restricted. These restrictions vary by institution, but exist mostly to encourage a constant number of students within an institution. If a University has yearly fees of less than £7,500 per year are able to compete to bid for an additional allocation from a pool of 20,000 reserve places that they can offer to students.
The important thing to note at this stage is that these restrictions apply to any undergraduate-level programme being offered by a provider, which means that the restrictions are not only applicable to bachelor’s degrees, but also to Foundation Degrees and Higher National Diplomas. These foundation programmes are usually provided in partnership with local colleges and admit students with far lower entry credits than traditional degree routes. Students who enter on these programmes are often from low participation backgrounds and are far more likely to come from deprived areas than students who enter directly on to bachelor’s degrees. Foundation Degrees in particular are a core and important route for mature students seeking an opportunity to study for a bachelor’s degree who are not able to commit to full-time study, as they often offer flexible learning arrangements. Once they have completed their Foundation Degree or Higher National Diploma, students are usually able to sit a “top-up” year at the provider college on an affiliated course and can then receive a full bachelor’s degree. In some cases, programmes like this would be the only possible entry route for young people and mature learners to higher education.
Student numbers are “allocated” to the provider – in this case, the University – who will then distribute the places across their provision strategically, and this includes the allocation of places to partner colleges who may be delivering their foundation courses. What we will no doubt see evidence in the near future that Universities who rely on students with lower entry tariffs and may only exceptionally have applicant students with AAB+ are withdrawing their number allocations from foundation programmes delivered by local partner colleges and redistributing them among their core provision. This will be partly because the funding is more efficient for the University when it doesn’t have to share with a college, and because restrictions on its own growth will hinder development of new mainstream bachelor’s undergraduate programmes which are simply of a higher priority.
A situation like this is absolutely fine for a Russell Group institution, or a University who would generally be expecting an entry tariff of AAB+ from their prospective students, and will probably not struggle to allocate additional places to their partner colleges.
The knock-on effect is that there will be fewer and fewer places available on Higher National Diplomas or Foundation Degrees, and that fewer young people who would have been able to progress to a top-up bachelor’s degree are being denied the opportunity to do so.
We are also seeing in the news countless examples of Universities engaging in risky overseas delivery. With the current system of student number controls in place, ambitious Universities who wish to expand their provision and generate more income are drawn to what may be seen as an easy solution to a difficult problem in tapping lucrative overseas markets. The reality is that these strategies are often not sustainable and without extreme care can very easily lose their rigour.
With this in mind, are postgraduate bursaries the best way to increase participation? Although the root cause for the drop in postgraduate numbers is the same as the root cause for undergraduate number controls – the change to the fee structures – more Universities are wanting to tap postgraduate student markets. Postgraduate students don’t carry with them the same load in terms of funding complications and don’t have restrictions on number. Although I certainly welcome additional support for aspiring postgraduates, I am uncomfortable with it being at the cost of undergraduate students, particularly in the current landscape where number restrictions are potentially affecting deprived students from participating fully in higher education.
I will be interested to see in the coming years whether we do see a decline in the HND and Foundation Degree, and more interested to note what kind of attention this attracts. My cynical gut feeling is that few commentators will be interested in this particular HE issue – one which will be affecting some of our most deprived and underprivileged students.