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A tariff threshold for HE admissions?

  • 18 December 2018
  • By Mary Curnock Cook

This guest blog has been kindly written for HEPI by Mary Curnock Cook – follow her on Twitter at @MaryCurnockCook

It was in the Browne Report in 2010.  The Browne team recognised that the government would need some kind of mechanism for controlling its exposure on student finance and proposed that a UCAS-tariff cut-off score would be set after the main application deadline in January each year so that the lower threshold for admission to higher education would vary with demand.  Additional places might be made available in Clearing and through a demand-led element to allow for older applicants applying with work and life experience instead of exam grades.

I remember David Eastwood, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Birmingham and a member of the Browne review team, telling me at the time that this recommendation, ultimately rejected by the Coalition Government, would likely be revisited in the future.  If the Sunday Times report is to be believed, he was right, and some of us heard whispers that this might be back on the cards virtually from the start of the Augar review.

There are many reasons why a move to restrict higher education for those with low Level 3 qualifications would be controversial.

  • The most obvious relate to the diversity of undergraduate students when low-income and black students in particular are the most likely to enter with lower qualification grades.
  • There are also complications for courses that rely on portfolios and auditions for entry, and for mature applicants (often part-time which has been so battered in the current funding regime) who are less likely to have the required threshold grades.
  • In addition, universities have autonomy over whom they admit to their courses and the conditions of entry they determine. This is enshrined within the 2017 Higher Education and Research Act under clause 36 (c):

36 Duty to protect academic freedom

(1)In performing its access and participation functions, the OfS has a duty to protect academic freedom including, in particular, the freedom of institutions—

(a)to determine the content of particular courses and the manner in which they are taught, supervised and assessed,

(b)to determine the criteria for the selection, appointment and dismissal of academic staff and apply those criteria in particular cases, and

(c) to determine the criteria for the admission of students and apply those criteria in particular cases.

The Government could, however, easily skirt round this issue simply by making the threshold apply to eligibility for student loans rather than eligibility for entry to higher education itself.

The backdrop to decisions being made around Augar is very different to those being made after the Browne Review.  In particular, the Augar review has, from the outset, been about post-18 education funding rather than just higher education.  As I set out in a piece on Damian Hinds’ recent speech, it seems the Government is intent on reducing its expenditure on higher education, not just by reducing fees or eligibility for student finance, but by pushing more students into (cheaper) mid-level skills and technical education at Levels 4 and 5, and probably in Further Education Colleges rather than universities. The demographic upturn expected from 2021 onwards is another indicator for the Government to watch its higher education purse as it simply cannot afford to finance the additional 300,000+ places that might be expected on current trends by 2030 (HEPI).

It seems almost as if the unrelenting anti-university media coverage of the last 18 months or so has been deliberate scene-setting for a distinctly unpalatable settlement for the sector from the Augar Review. Vice-Chancellor pay, unconditional offers, free speech, low wage returns from ‘useless’ degrees, and the clear suggestion that universities have enjoyed a plentiful financial bonus while others have suffered austerity, have all paved the way for a more favourable reception when the Government delivers its new medicine.

Whatever combination of lower and / or differential fees, student number caps and managed eligibility for student finance Augar recommends, the sector must be bracing for a financial shock, perhaps even in the previously hallowed quadrangles of the Russell Group.   Universities will need to be considering some innovative strategies to ensure their future success. As David Hughes, the head of the Association of Colleges, suggested in a recent TES column, working closely with the FE sector should be one of them.  The winners from this round will be those who can provide convincing employer-led Level 4 and 5 programmes, higher and degree apprenticeships, and slick articulation to full honours for those who want to top up from mid-level programmes.  Should the Augar Review also seek to address the precipitous decline in part-time higher education, universities will want to consider switching some of their student attraction activities to older students. If the Government’s strategy for more school leavers to undertake what it now calls Higher Technical Education (HTE) at levels 4 and 5 works, demand to complete a full degree from this group should be growing in the future.

Perhaps some universities will also be confident enough about the value they add to students’ employability to go it alone and consider innovative loan schemes where they take the financial risk onto their own books.  Either way, the combination of the ONS, the Augar Review, and the Government’s technical education strategy is likely to presage a monumental shake up for the higher education sector.

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