Skip to content
The UK's only independent think tank devoted to higher education.

If a student numbers cap is to return, then the sector needs to demonstrate that it was the last resort

  • 3 April 2020

This blog has been contributed by someone working at a senior level in an English university, who has asked to remain anonymous.

Crises can precipitate profound social change but first they expose weaknesses and speed up effects that would have happened anyway. 

It should be no surprise, then, that the global pandemic has created existential crises for many universities. Some have been far too heavily reliant on international students, others were in poor financial health even before COVID-19 reared its very ugly head. Others may simply have been suffering from poor leadership and governance. The rush of some universities to convert conditional to unconditional offers – in some case all offers to unconditional offers – looks like panic.

The financial problems for the sector are real. If some universities that have been overly dependent on international students look to make up the shortfall with more UK students, they might create existential threats to other universities. 

Most of these universities are fundamentally sound and provide an excellent education for many thousands of students each year. Society needs these universities to be standing and flourishing if we are get through the after-effects of COVID-19. 

Yet it is possible that a handful of universities may not be fundamentally sound. Their finances are creaky and their student numbers have been falling, but many remain major employers in their towns and cities. The Office for Students has plans to manage institutional failure but no one really knows how these plans will work. So it is best that the first time they are tried is not with a handful of institutions at the same time.

The existential threats – the effects of which will go way beyond the sector – cannot be ignored. But there is another side to the balance sheet. In making up the international student shortfall, some young people will end up at universities they could not have dreamed possible a few weeks ago, which could be good for social mobility. This matters, and not only because of the potential long-term effects this year’s 18-year-olds might suffer – as David Willetts pointed out on HEPI recently. 

The speed with which some in the sector seem to have stampeded towards number controls is doing us no favours. It risks reinforcing the views many people had of the sector before the crisis and overshadows the frankly brilliant crisis response work of many universities across the country. 

To show leadership, some decisions need to be made quickly. To show responsibility and thought, others need to be made slowly. Any decision on a student number control falls into the latter category. If there is to be a control, the sector needs to demonstrate that it is well-designed and that we embraced it only after exhausting all other alternatives.

I am sure it does not feel like this now, but university leaders should be pleased the story about a possible cap broke this week. The downsides of a cap are now clear beforeanyone is committed to a decision. 

What are the alternatives? 

One possibility is well-targeted support for the universities who need it most, including loans or short-term credit. We should also be clear that the problem is money, not students. In the short-term can we de-couple the two so that the crisis has minimal effect on young people? 

If the Government guaranteed a minimum income for the most financially pressed universities for the next twelve months we could learn whether the existential threats do emerge – as well as learn more about which universities are (and which are not) fundamentally sound. The government would then have more time to judge how to deal with this problem.

Is a notional cap possible? Universities could recruit as many students as they want but above their ‘cap’ they would receive less funding per student; it could be £7,500pa each. 

The devil is in the detail here but such a system would maintain the current system’s responsiveness to student demand. This responsiveness is a key feature of any higher education system – as has been recently argued in this HEPI report. The sector should do everything it can to maintain it. Any money saved from a notional cap could be returned to government or used to help struggling universities. 


Not all of these ideas are workable but the sector needs to show it considered them and, if possible, that it was government that rejected them. If student number controls must happen, we need to show that they are Margaret Thatcher’s ‘TINA’: there is no alternative. And we must exhaustively explain the rejected options.

If we do not do this – if the sector is seen as too swiftly putting its short-term interests ahead of young people’s during this country’s worst peace-time crisis – we might secure our short-term future but only at the cost of goodwill and, quite possibly, a permanent student number cap. Neither we, nor young people, would benefit from this. 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *