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A student-centric bailout for universities

  • 15 April 2020
  • By Mary Curnock Cook

This guest blog has been kindly written for HEPI by Mary Curnock Cook, who is a member of HEPI’s Advisory Board, Chair of Council at the Dyson Institute, Chair of Trustees of the Access Project, a Council member at the Open University and a non-exec Director at the Student Loans Company. She can be found on Twitter at @MaryCurnockCook.

Universities UK (UUK) have proposed a series of measures to ensure that the higher education sector isn’t irreparably damaged by the Coronavirus crisis. But is there a better way of looking at this, through a student lens?

The £2 billion package proposed by UUK envisages (among other things) a doubling of QR (quality related research) funding to mitigate a loss of the cross-subsidy provided by international student fee income, a temporary cap on student recruitment to smooth the market effects across the sector and a vague promise of better manners in student recruitment and marketing.

Another way of approaching risk mitigation in the sector would be to take a more student-centric approach, prioritising ways to increase applicant and student confidence and then providing financial support for the universities most at risk.

  • Fees rebate

Students who are unable to access the full range of university facilities which they have ‘paid’ for through their student loans feel hard done by, with some justification. Telling students that online learning is also expensive and that universities still have to pay for much of the provision which has been mothballed during the crisis doesn’t help.  A fee discount of, say, 20% for the period where all learning needs to be accessed online should have a positive impact on student recruitment and retention.  Reassuring the hoped-for 2020 new intake of freshers that, should their university be unable to open physically, they will be paying a lower fee would do much to bolster confidence for those considering withdrawing or deferring their applications.  The same should apply for international students.

Several independent schools, also seriously financially destabilised in the crisis, have done something similar with the logic that they need to share the pain with fee-paying families.  Those that have done so have banked invaluable relationship and reputational credit; those that have stuck to a full-fee regime have been criticised heavily.

Of course, such a move would put intolerable financial strain on most universities in the sector, but the Government could mitigate this by continuing to remit the full tuition fee for domestic students through the student loan system.  If the Government is serious about supporting higher education exports, they should also consider support to plug the gap for international fee discounts.  Reducing the loan balance for domestic students while still remitting the full tuition fee amount to universities for, let’s say, two terms, would have a negligible effect on public finances given the already large proportion of the fee and maintenance loans that are written off. The psychological contract for students would seem much fairer although in practice would make little difference to their repayments later in life.  

Securing more stable student recruitment in this way may be cheaper than direct financial support to failing institutions, while also boosting trust and confidence for students and applicants.  And it would leave universities in the driving seat to ensure that the student support and teaching they provide remotely is good enough to retain loyalty from their aspiring and current students.

  • Qualifications and arrangements for late starts and exam sitters

I have no doubt that the exam results produced by Ofqual and the awarding bodies this summer will be fair – in aggregate at least.  What is less clear is how widespread the real or imagined individual unfairnesses will be, how (and how quickly) awarding bodies will be able to deal with appeals, and how on earth those deciding to sit their exams in the autumn will be able to mitigate the potentially severe disruption to their intended progression to university or elsewhere.  This is especially pertinent for students intent on admission to highly-selective universities.  Gap years, often seen as desirable for many middle-class families, may be unaffordable for less well-off students, especially in a turbulent post-Corona job market. 

The regulators and awarding bodies have a massive job to scale what has hitherto been a simple job of moderating the awards of the small number of students who have been unable to sit all or part of the exams each summer.  They will be relying on non-standardised data feeds from thousands of secondary schools and colleges and it is unlikely that their statistical modelling will fully account for the effects for students holding a conditional offer for a university place.  It is conceivable that, for the purposes of university admissions this year, the predicted grades made for UCAS applications could actually be a fairer base from which to confirm places.  These grades were predicted in ‘normal’ times and the admissions system has long priced in the known (and statistically repeatable) inaccuracy of predictions. Such an approach could significantly reduce the individual unfairnesses and ensure that more students end up studying the right course for their abilities.

When the timetable for sitting and marking exams in the autumn is clearer, universities should immediately put in place an admissions and entry timetable for delayed applicants.  This might include places reserved for offer-holders electing to sit exams, catch-up arrangements and extended timetables for missed teaching and learning. Government could support universities to cover the increased cost of this provision and lost accommodation income. The disruption of lost enrolments and/or mass deferrals to 2021 would surely be far more costly.  Students who feel disadvantaged by their artificially calculated exam grades need arms put around them to encourage and support them to be able to continue their progression plans this year.

  • Admissions and caps

The UUK proposals include a cap on recruitment of domestic students aimed at smoothing the market effects of the crisis.  Broadly, institutions higher up the pecking order are most at risk from falls in international recruitment and are therefore expected to lower their grade requirements to increase their market share of domestic students at the expense of universities lower down the pecking order. But the proposed cap at +5% on forecastrecruitment is very soft on those universities most likely to be able to increase their recruitment in the current circumstances. Forecast recruitment has been notoriously optimistic over several years and 2020 is another year when total domestic recruitment is likely to be flat given the continuing decline in the size of the 18-year old cohort.  If there were such a cap it should surely be baselined against last year’s actual recruitment in order to correct for relative optimism bias across the sector.  In either case, a 5% growth in recruitment at the top of the sector when the number of applicants is up by only 1.2% this year would be devastating for those lower down the student preference table so this number needs a rethink if it is to be credible.

A more student centric approach would be to let the market play out – in other words let aspiring students reap some meagre benefits from the crisis with a greater likelihood of being accepted at their preferred university.  Undoubtedly this would play out with winners at the top and losers at the bottom of the sector, leaving some in dire straits needing financial support for the Government to consider.  Assuming no recurring lockdowns, the recruitment market could be expected to normalise again in the 2021 cycle, when it is also anticipated that the size of the 18-year old cohort starts to increase again.  This approach is much more in keeping with the government’s overall policy of student choice and a market in higher education.  

A hybrid approach would be to pause and reflect in the middle of the confirmation and clearing process this summer.  With a possible opportunity for awarded grades to be uploaded to the UCAS system slightly earlier than usual, universities could report on two data points: their recruitment numbers based on those who had fully met their conditional offers and their recruitment numbers based on those they intend  to confirm despite grades being lower than offered.  This would give the Office of Students and Government a quick view of both the distribution of places and market effects throughout the sector, and the relative size of the Clearing (and Insurance) pool compared to the previous year.  At this stage, caps could be introduced in two ways.  If the intended confirmed pool already points to market distortions, universities could be restricted in how many grades below the original conditional offer they could accept, hence increasing the Clearing and Insurance pools.  If necessary, another checkpoint could be run after Insurance confirmations.

Secondly, caps could be introduced in Clearing – either by pausing Clearing for a data check before Clearing applications are confirmed, or by simply capping Clearing recruitment based on the data.  In both these scenarios, the Government and the regulators can use data to decide on the need to impose any caps and also balance this against the expressed preferences of students about what and where they wish to study.

To protect the most disadvantaged students, applicants with agreed widening participation flags should be left out of any market smoothing or capping arrangements entirely.

This would also be an excellent opportunity for student number caps to be removed entirely in Scotland and Northern Ireland, where large numbers of aspiring students are restricted from studying at their home universities.

The value of higher education is once again a source of national pride in the midst of the current crisis.  Applying a student lens to financial sustainability measures for universities would do much to stabilise the sector during and after the Coronavirus crisis, while also ensuring that student choice, progression and attainment is disrupted as little as possible.

Earlier HEPI blogs by Mary cover A-Level results, student engagement and parity of esteem between technical and academic education.


  1. Liz Morrish says:

    Can anyone explain why all of these arrangements would be preferable to launching a PQA January start ? Along with much to agree with here, there are a couple of suggestions which concern me. Firstly, there is a suggestion that seems to invite government to take too much control over university admissions ( limiting grade reductions in offers). Secondly, this: “universities should immediately put in place an admissions and entry timetable for delayed applicants. This might include places reserved for offer-holders electing to sit exams, catch-up arrangements and extended timetables for missed teaching and learning”.
    Risking accusations of being academic centric, I’d like to point out the workload implications of this. Staff will already be preparing online courses and may have to switch platforms mid year. How would they have capacity to tutor another mini cohort of late starters? Even in the unlikely event of government funding to cover this, who will provide the tuition unless it is the staff responsible for continuing to teach the courses? An even more unlikely event would be universities applying the funding to cover the extra workload generated.

  2. Albert Wright says:

    A very thoughtful contribution to the current debate.

    One thing that is lacking from a student choice perspective is the lack of data on the on line / distance learning capability for specific courses at individual institutions.

    If there is to be no “in location “ teaching in the next 12 months, will this not create new league tables of excellence in teaching?

    If most teaching and learning is on line, what becomes the new Oxford or Manchester or Sunderland University Experience?

    Does the Open University become the new Oxbridge if all students are learning at home ?

  3. Thanks for the piece.

    The student-centric approach is welcome, and the author is right to critique the proposed package for being too research-centric.

    But …

    “A more student centric approach would be to let the market play out” … ?

    I understand the argument: in the short-term, it’s possible that a few lucky students might be able to get into a higher-ranked university, as those institutions lower their thresholds to plug the gap in their finances left by international recruitment.

    But in the longer-term, such a measure could easily result in the closure of the very institutions that are most successful in terms of WP. It is surely not in students’ interest to see their local institutions ‘exit’ the market, not least because they will be central to regional regeneration after the crisis.

    A truly student-centric approach would perhaps look more towards the long-term collective viability of the whole sector, and the best interests of multiple generations of future students, not just a single cohort?

    I’m not sure that ‘letting the market play out’ is the best way to achieve this.

  4. Pam Tatlow says:

    UUK’s response is disappointing to say the least and will undoubtedly benefit those universities which receive the most QR while the proposals around the student number cap are hopeless. Basing a recruitment target of numbers submitted in December 2019 +5% takes no account of deferrals – which even UUK concedes could run at 15% – and again preferences unis higher up the pecking order.
    Worse still UUK has submitted its proposals without any reference to NUS, UCU and other TUs. You don’t have to agree with everything in this blog but a strategy which involves all key stakeholders and especially students is a much better start.

  5. Les Ebdon says:

    It is interesting to see how a student focussed approach leads to a series of much more sensible responses than the research centric approach of UUK.
    Some level of debt forgiveness for students caught up in the closing of campuses would help to restore student confidence. Student number caps always have to be based on previous actual numbers and not forecasts produced to show financial stability. Most of the lost international students will be postgraduate masters students. A stimulus to home postgraduate recruitment would both use some of the spare capacity and help ameliorate the graduate employment situation which is expected to be dire.

  6. Mary Curnock Cook says:

    Regarding Steve Jones comment, and to be clear, I was suggesting that if the market were allowed to play out (in the interests of students) without any number caps, then some universities would undoubtedly need financial support from HMG.

  7. Simon Kaufman says:

    a welcome critique of the UUK proposal which would unduly reward those institutions who both recruited successfully above target last year and who already benefit from high levels of QR support; any numbers control should surely be based on more than a single cycle ‘snapshot’ – why not base any control number scheme on outruns over a minimum of three years ( ie the standard ug lifecycle)?

    Less sure about the proposals directly relating to this year’s admissions cycle which appear to wholly set aside the principle ( enshrined in legislation) that institutions have ‘autonomy’ in matters of student selection/admission and which once given up by the sector – however pressing the current financial operational imperative – would permit other inroads to be made into this arena whether for arguably good (enhanced access/wp to highly selective institutions for first generation/BAME/other categories of applicant without significant sources of cultural/social capital) or less good ( direct governmental/state intervention in the academic course ‘offer’ of institutions) purposes.

    The suggestions for a ‘pause and reflect’ point in this summer’s Confirmation and Clearing phase of the annual cycle are really interesting.

    Having a ‘pause’ point at the stage when only strict fulfilment of conditional offer terms have been met would have a very substantial impact on a broad range of institutions whose recruitment behaviours have always included – generally in the applicant interest of their ‘firm’ accepts – some element of a ‘margin of tolerance’ on original offer terms whether set at points equivalence ( in the case of offers expressed in grade only terms) or performance one/several grades below the formal terms of any offer made. In the case of highly selective ( proxy for Russell Group) institutions such margins would normally be set at the point where it was believed that students could still cope with the demands of first year teaching and learning without placing undue strain on permanent academic staff resource where other priorities – normally research but including other institutional/departmental priorities – would not be adversely impacted; in situations where institutions now make both standard and contextual offers then at minimum this ‘margin of tolerance’ can be managed at around (possibly within one or more grades) of where the contextual offer point is routinely set. Actively preventing institutions from operating such flexibilities would both not be student centric and a clear erosion of traditional autonomies in student selection.

    A ‘pause’ between ‘Confirmation’ and ‘Clearing’ to facilitate monitoring of numbers would require either OfS regulation preventing or penalising institutions for ‘informal’ offer-making in any newly devised ‘pause window’ or some UUK concordat achieving the same outcome in order to be practicable whilst from a ‘student centric’ perspective it would be difficult to see how ‘Adjustment’ (clearly in the student interest) could operate if such opportunities were to be within the parameters of any centrally imposed ‘cap’ – perhaps in what is proposed this ‘trading up’ option would need to have the same ‘out of scope’ exemption as that proposed for the WP cohort.

    The suggestion of a ‘pause’ between Confirmation and Clearing recalls the ‘pause’ in the annual calendar that used to exist in UCCA days between the Confirmation schedule for A Level ( and Higher) applicants and the onset of Clearing (now proposed for an entirely different sector-wide strategic purpose) but which disappeared with the establishment of UCAS and the adoption of the PCAS Clearing model aligned with liberalisation of sector approaches to course advertising around the same time resulting in the ever more intense and brief window in which the bulk of Clearing activity takes place with which we are all familiar; in a digital era and for whatever broader purpose it will be a very significant challenge to sector behaviours to reposition Clearing as proposed in this article.

    Finally I can’t see how any autumn 2020 public examination cycle which might be devised can be accommodated within this year’s cycle unless there is to be a move by major sector players/mission groups towards a January start date which itself would bring PQA options into the frame at a much more road timescale than is presumably envisaged in the OfS admissions consultation currently on hold.

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