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.