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Why the new student number cap is unworkable, by Bahram Bekhradnia

  • 5 May 2020

Bahram Bekhradnia founded HEPI in 2002 and was its Director until January 2014, since when he has been HEPI’s President. Before establishing HEPI, he was the Director of Policy for the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE). This is his first HEPI blog.

The Government’s introduction of controls over the freedom of universities to recruit students ad lib brings to an end the short-lived experiment in a demand-led market-driven higher education system – and with it, it seems the raison d’être of the Office for Students and certainly its modus operandi.

Now, the health of the sector is to be protected – and to rub the point in, it is notable that the Government has not asked the Office for Students to implement the new requirements but the Student Loans Company.

The Office for Students is left watching from the sidelines and has been told it must require institutions to behave in ways which do not damage ‘the stability and/or integrity of the English HE sector’. Yes, its conditions of registration will include the requirement that universities must behave in a way that protects the interests of the sector, a concept that has hitherto been absent from its thoughts and actions. It dresses this up as a measure to protect students’ interests, but the Office for Students has never previously considered the health of the sector as a whole as important for the interests of the students that it is there to protect.

The new rules require institutions to limit recruitment from September 2020 to ‘provider forecasts’, +5%.The reason for this control is stated to be to maintain stability and to ensure a fair, structured distribution of students across providers – essentially, to avoid some institutions getting into serious trouble because of predatory activity by others better positioned in the market.

However, the measures that have been announced do nothing to achieve these apparent goals, and are most likely unworkable.

First, the nonsense. The 5% margin apparently includes EU students. Even without the crisis, the number of EU students would have been seriously reduced, and now, as a result of the virus, there may scarcely be any new EU students coming to UK universities next year. That provides an even greater licence to recruit home students, reducing even further the efficacy of this new control to achieve its stated aim – to maintain stability and avoid damaging the least strong. If EU student recruitment dries up, then this policy will enable institutions to recruit as many as 40 per cent more home entrants next year. Effectively this control provides no control at all.

Second, the policy is based on forecasts of intakes. Neither the OFS nor the Government nor anybody else has asked institutions to provide a headcount forecast of 2020 entrants – though it is possible the Government might try to derive such forecasts from other information provided, these are unlikely to be fit-for-purpose. It would have been another thing to require institutions to remain within a margin of 2019 recruitment, but that is not what has been required.  

Third, the 5% margin is anyway extremely wide. If strong institutions were to increase their recruitment by 5% even over the 2019 levels that would still greatly jeopardise the recruitment of many other institutions. This is not the market at work, but it still allows better established institutions to take advantage of their strengths and exploit the weaknesses of others.

Whatever its intentions, the new controls – while abandoning the market-driven system and claiming to protect the higher education sector as a whole – nevertheless and as currently announced play only to the interests of the best established institutions while doing little to protect the English sector as a whole.

Now that we have stopped the pretence that there is no higher education sector and that the nation as a whole has no interest in the health of all institutions, what has clearly emerged out of the most recent chaos is the need for a body which is able to make sensible decisions that really do protect this key element in England’s infrastructure. That body is clearly not the Office for Students, and it is clear that the Government does not think so either.

Nor is it the Department. One alarming aspect of this latest development is the extent to which the Secretary of State has taken powers to himself that have never been exercised by a minister, and in particular the power to allocate additional student numbers and to impose financial penalties on institutions that break the controls in a way that the old Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) used to do. In the absence of HEFCE and given the role of the Office for Students – both the role that it has in law, and the way it has chosen to exercise that role – it could be argued that there is no other body able to exercise these functions. If there is one positive outcome of this crisis it is the realisation that we do have a higher education sector, that it matters greatly that its integrity should be maintained – and that we need a body whose role it is to ensure this.


  1. A stock-take needed on the relationship between the sector & Gov. The response to HE during the crisis is worryingly unsupportive and interventions likely to cause more pain than benefit.
    ‘Bailout’ structured as if responding to a liquidity issue, when in fact it is a solvency issue for many.

  2. David Melville says:

    You are absolutely right Bahram. The government’s intervention brings an end (for now) to the OFS macho ‘we’ll let universities fail’ mantra, but the limits should at the very least have been based on 2019 intakes and restricted to home students. The OFS with its petty micro-management approach to regulation is not fit for purpose and the lack of a numbers cap for individual institutions has already wrought untold damage to some perfectly good institutions. I wish, however, that I had confidence that there won’t be a return to the status quo when the current crisis is over.

  3. Rob Cuthbert says:

    Bahram, well said, and spot on. No-one emerges with any credit from this , not OfS, not UUK, not the new Minister. A terrifyingly consistent ‘more means worse’ line seems to be buried very deep inside whichever government department oversees higher education, and is currently manifested in the ‘low quality courses’ narrative which is being vigorously encouraged by most of the mainstream media.

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