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Comparing a Numbers Cap with an Attainment Threshold

  • 26 March 2019
  • By Iain Mansfield

Imagine you’re the President of Universities UK. You’ve been invited to a private meeting at No. 11, where the Chancellor informs you that he has decided to control the numbers entering UK higher education.

No, he cuts you off as you protest, the decision is made, the Cabinet on side, his mind is firmly made up. The end of the ‘fiscal illusion’ has exposed the true cost of the higher education system. The only thing left to decide is how to do it: should the Government reimpose a student number cap, or should they instead introduce an attainment threshold for entry, such as a requirement to have at least 72 UCAS points (equivalent of three ‘D’s at A-Level)? He knows the two policies would impact students and providers differently, and he’d value your advice – so what do you say?

There are some who would argue that the right answer here is to walk out; that both are utterly unacceptable. I’d suggest this approach is a mistake. Whether or not a restriction is desirable (something this article will not discuss), it is certainly not unreasonable, in the sense of being outside historical higher education policy. For almost all of the post-war era, there has been either a numbers cap or an attainment threshold (the former ‘two ‘E’s at A-Level’ requirement) or, indeed, for many years, both. The decision on whether or not to control numbers is a political one, but how to implement it is likely to be a subject of fierce discussion between officials at the Department for Education and the Treasury. That discussion will be more informed if the sector feeds into it, even if behind the scenes.

We will assume both would be implemented in a sensible fashion: the student number cap would work much like the way it operated previously; the attainment threshold would use the UCAS tariff system to recognise alternative qualifications, such as BTecs, foundation courses or an Access to HE programme. Both systems would only apply to students under 21, allowing for life experience to substitute for formal qualifications. So what would the relative advantages and disadvantages of each method be?

I will consider them against four legitimate public policy criteria:

  • Controlling government expenditure.
  •  Ease of administration.
  • The Robbins principle.
  • Fairness and social mobility.

1. Controlling government expenditure

An explicit numbers cap clearly performs better against the criterion of controlling government expenditure. If a numbers cap applies, Treasury will know almost precisely how many students will be admitted and how much money will be paid out.

An attainment threshold, on the other hand, will mean that numbers can only be estimated. That original estimate will become less accurate as the years go by as the population and school education system changes and the system responds to the new conditions.

2. Ease of administration

It is difficult to see how an overall numbers cap can be imposed without also imposing caps on each individual provider. Should that be done at the level they are now, or at a different level (bearing in mind the high levels of recent fluctuation in recruitment)? Unless we wish a completely static system, any future changes would also require the Office for Students to make difficult choices as to the relative worth of different providers, determining which ones deserve to expand and, accordingly, which will have to shrink.

By contrast, an attainment threshold is considerably easier to apply. While some work is needed up-front to ensure it operates fairly (determining the threshold, which qualifications can count towards it, and so forth), once in place it does not require any further intervention in the higher education system, not does it require the government to make judgements as to the relative worth of different providers.

Politically, our hypothetical Chancellor may also find an attainment threshold easier to present to the public on Results Day. Headlines of the number of students who wanted, but were unable, to go to university were a regular feature in the days of the numbers cap. Rather than citing an arbitrary limit, the message ‘Anyone who gets the equivalent of three Ds can go, and these are the routes to qualify available to allow those who have just missed out’ seems an easier message to justify than an arbitrary cap.

3. The Robbins Principle

The Robbins Principle is “that courses of higher education should be available for all those who are qualified by ability and attainment to pursue them and who wish to do so.” Current discourse in the sector often focuses on the latter half of the principle – ‘who wish to do so’ – but it is important to recognise that Robbins did not envisage that higher education should be available to all, but rather to all those ‘qualified by ability and attainment’. This is a critical distinction.

A numbers cap – unless set so high to be meaningless – obviously violates this principle. On the surface, an attainment threshold would seem to be a much better fit. University places would still be available to anyone who meets a certain attainment threshold. The situation is complicated, however, by whether or not the threshold imposed genuinely measures whether someone is ‘qualified by ability and attainment’ to pursue higher education.

Much has been written in recent months about the suitability of using three Ds at A-Level to determine suitability. While some is hyperbole, other critiques are valid, and there is no doubt that some providers would legitimately wish to use other, non-academic criteria, in determining admissions, particularly in creative courses such as art and design. This leads to an argument that a numbers cap is the better of the two interventions: if the government can only support a certain number of students, the best way of fulfilling the Robbins principle is for the government to set the cap and then let individual providers determine for themselves ‘who is qualified by ability and attainment’.

  • This is compelling, and in accordance with our principle that providers should have autonomy over admissions. It is, however, undermined by a number of factors:
    The government will still need to be involved. If the government is setting individual caps for the Universities of Poppleton and Upper Poppleton, this will in turn impact on the individual decisions of who is qualified, because those universities will use different criteria.
  • The sector’s inability to control the sharp rise in unconditional offers and numbers of firsts awarded might legitimately cause a Chancellor to question whether providers will always be the best judge of who is qualified, or whether some, even if a minority, might not be such strong guardians of standards.

In short, there is no straightforward solution as to which method is most in accordance with the Robbins principle. The answer depends on subjective judgements such as one’s belief in the value of A-Levels and other qualifications in measuring attainment, the commitment of providers to maintaining standards and the sophistication with which the threshold is determined.

4. Fairness and social mobility

History shows the best way to ensure under-represented groups have a better chance of entering higher education is to have more places. The extent to which those groups have actually benefitted from this is a matter of current and fierce debate, which this article will not discuss. Suffice it to say that any control of numbers is likely to see a proportionately (if not an absolute) greater reduction in those from lower socio-economic backgrounds.

So which of the two methods would be fairer? Critics of an attainment threshold are quick to point out that A-Level grades are correlated with socio-economic background. This is true, though it does not necessarily imply inaccurate measurement: potential may be distributed equally, but 18 years of unequal educational opportunities seems likely to have some impact on an individual’s chance of being ‘qualified by ability and attainment to pursue [higher education]’ upon leaving school. The correct response to this is not to deny reality, but to ensure that routes to becoming qualified – such as foundation courses or Access to HE – are available, accessible and suitably funded.

More broadly, any entry criteria (in the absence of a lottery or quota system) is going to find that those from higher socio-economic backgrounds are more likely to reach higher education. Anyone who wishes to advocate for number caps over an attainment threshold should remember that, in 2010, only 14% of 18 year olds from the lowest POLAR quintile progressed to higher education.

Finally, assessing ‘fairness’ is a difficult subject, and is not simply related to the numbers of those entering higher education from different backgrounds. The extent to which an attainment threshold is ‘fair’ compared to a numbers cap depends in large part on the extent to which that threshold genuinely reflects, at least on a statistical level, an ability to succeed in or benefit from higher education.

This is a difficult question with no simple answer. It deserves to have been debated more in the sector, not least because there is a real possibility – particularly with the forthcoming increase in the population of 18 year olds – that one of these policies could be implemented at some point during the next few years.

For my own part, while the decision is finely balanced, I lean towards an attainment threshold – sensibly applied, recognising a range of qualifications and alternative routes in – over a numbers cap. There are a number of reasons for this. I would rather not see the government involved in making specific decisions over which providers should expand and contract; somewhat more importantly, and though the case is arguable, I believe a threshold is more in keeping with the Robbins principle. A moderate attainment threshold, such as an equivalent of three Ds, does not seem too much to ask to enter something which wishes to be called ‘higher’ education.

Most importantly though, is the impact on social mobility. History has shown us that it is easier for those from less-advantaged backgrounds to overcome an absolute threshold than it is to overcome a relative threshold. It is easier to raise the absolute income of the bottom quartile than to reduce inequality; it is easier to give more people degrees than to increase the representation of disadvantaged backgrounds amongst High Court judges.

In the same way, a set attainment threshold will prove less of a barrier than a numbers cap. The thought experiment is simple: if one is engaged in access work, either through a university or in a school, which would be easier: to support a disadvantaged applicant to achieve the equivalent of three Ds, or to support them to do better than their middle-class peer?

To answer the question conclusively, further analysis of specific proposals would be needed. But if numbers are controlled, there are modest reasons to prefer that this be done by means of an attainment threshold, rather than a numbers cap.


  1. This “difficult question with no simple answer” becomes even more so in the light of the recently-published Ofqual research that GCSE, AS and A level grades are right to only one grade either way ( I paraphrase a sentence on page 4 of

    Decisions taken on the basis of ‘three Ds’ are therefore significantly unreliable: that same candidate might have been awarded three Cs, or indeed 3 Es, as discussed in the HEPI blog

  2. Robert says:

    3 Ds sounds a low threshold to me, particularly when A-level grade inflation is taken into account. Personally, I would be embarrassed to gain a place at a worthwhile university course with such low results, and I would then do an extra year’s study and retry my exams the following year. Universities are for the brightest and best, not every young person.

    Of course, I’m lucky enough to have parents who would continue to host me into my 20s, if I wanted to continue my studies and get good A levels. I suspect that would be the case for the majority of A level students who really want to go to university, but fail to reach the 3 Ds minimum. Special allowances should then be made for the minority who have to rent their own place when retrying their A levels and can’t live with mum or dad. Perhaps some kind of Student Loan system could be introduced for pre-university students, but with 0% interest? Paying back a small percentage through future salary always seemed the fairest way to me. Of course, various colleges and Sixth Forms could also be encouraged to provide grants for students from poorer backgrounds who need to take an extra year or two of study to qualify for university.

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