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Student number controls: The final word from HEPI (And why you should come and work for us!)

  • 9 November 2022
  • By Nick Hillman

I’m not completely sure anyone wants or needs another round in the HEPI / Wonkhe (or more accurately Hillman / Leach) debate on student number controls. I’m not even completely sure I do, despite being its instigator and one of the pugilists. But against my better judgement and because the issue is so important, I cannot quite resist the temptation to provide a few comebacks to Mark Leach’s tightly argued article on why he thinks I’m wrong.

To summarise the debate so far:

  • I think the removal of student number caps in England is worth protecting more than most other existing higher education policies;
  • Mark thinks sacrificing the cap-free system may come to be a price worth paying because of the importance of other variables – he says keeping caps off could ‘lead to a unit of resource so low that students would get an impossibly thin experience’.

Tea with Jeremy: Student number controls and the Cabinet Secretary

Before I explain why I (still) disagree with Mark, let me tell an anecdote that I’ve been waiting years to recount properly. A decade or so ago, I was sitting in a small room at Number 10 Downing Street opposite Jeremy Heywood, the Cabinet Secretary, and alongside various senior officials. The meeting was being held to discuss how we might liberalise student numbers a little but definitely not so much that it would scare the horses (or the traditional instincts of the Treasury).

This was in the days of core-and-margin, which readers may recall was a short-lived policy that freed people with top grades from student number controls: if an institution could attract the best-qualified students, then they could hoover more of them up but other students and institutions were not generally so directly affected. This policy was, in some (but not all) respects, a little like the ideas Wonkhe is floating today, as core-and-margin sought a halfway house between avoiding a free-for-all while allowing expansion at some institutions. But it was a bureaucratic nightmare and pleased almost no one. Even those with responsibility for the policy didn’t like it.

So when Jeremy Heywood, who was chairing the meeting in question, asked the room for alternative ideas to core-and-margin, I floated the complete removal of student number caps. It was an idea that we were already pushing around inside the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. At the time, the impending fiftieth anniversary of the Robbins report of 1963 was on our minds, including its core principle: ‘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.’

The Cabinet Secretary’s expression immediately revealed he thought I was stark-raving bonkers. Nonetheless, I nervously went on to remind him that we do not limit the number of people who can benefit from the compulsory phase of education (schooling) and there seemed to be no clear rationale for standing in the way of universities wanting to recruit willing and able students either. A demand-driven system, as was then being rolled out in Australia, made much more sense.

Heywood told me in response that removing student number caps was so far away from existing policy in England that it simply wasn’t worth discussing and shut the conversation down. No one else spoke up for the idea and the meeting ended soon afterwards. Yet policymaking can move fast – much faster than was widely realised before the crazy last few months. Pretty soon, removing student number caps became official Government policy.

To be absolutely clear, I do not in any way claim this meeting in Number 10 led to number caps being removed; there were other reasons why the stars aligned that I’ve revealed elsewhere. Rather, I tell the anecdote because it reveals something important: student numbers caps were, not very long ago, so deeply embedded in the thinking of Westminster and Whitehall that the most senior civil servant in the land would not even discuss removing them.

I would like to see today’s absence of number controls equally deeply embedded as an accepted fact across Westminster and Whitehall. But I worry the centralised tendency to control things means the removal of caps remains constantly vulnerable to attack: ever since the student number controls eventually disappeared altogether in the mid-2010s, somebody somewhere with power has been trying to bring them back and quite often that person has been a senior Department for Education Minister!

That’s why it worries me so much when the higher education sector looks to be preparing the ground for more such attacks on the current policy of no controls by coming up with clever-clever ways to reimpose some sort of controls.

Talking points

More specifically, my five disagreements with Mark’s piece are:

  1. Be careful what you wish for: Mark paints the reintroduction of some sort of controls as managing demand. I am not sure why you would want to manage someone else’s demand for the unalloyed good of more education, but perhaps it could provide some institutional stability and help with levelling up. The problem is that we know policymakers who can control student places don’t just seek to manage demand as an enlightened despot might; instead, they seek to push students on to their favoured routes. A perceptive comment under Mark’s post considers the recent return of student number controls in Australia: ‘The response of the Government has not been the nuanced adjustments of enrolment caps and funding levels that Leach envisages, but ad hoc additions of new places to fields and locations considered desirable by the government for economic and political reasons.’ It was the same back in 2014/15, when the Westminster Government was preparing for the removal of caps and the Labour Opposition was opposing the policy and instead making it clear ‘new Technical Degrees will be our priority for growth in the higher education system.’ No number controls gives institutions the power to set their own strategies whereas number controls make autonomy on admissions (which is theoretically protected in primary legislation) a bit of a nonsense.
  2. It’s not all about the RAB: Mark says the Treasury’s interest in saving money on higher education stems from the large student loan write-off costs [the RAB or Resource Accounting and Budgeting Charge], which now count as current public spending. He claims it is necessary to keep new student number controls on the menu of policy options because otherwise the Treasury could adopt unpalatable options like reducing the overall loan outlay, asking students’ parents to contribute bigger sums or getting graduates to repay more. But higher education policy is not (and should not be) all about the RAB / write-off cost; it is also about the extra tax revenues from having more graduates, which more than trump the write-off costs. The Treasury let us remove caps because they knew it would boost productivity and as Andreas Schleicher from the OECD put it a few years ago: ‘Keep in mind that the added tax income of those graduates who end up in employment, on average over £80,000 in the UK, is many times larger than any conceivable bad debt’. In other words, many students who do not repay their entire student loan via their official student loan repayments will still pay more to the Treasury in higher income tax and National Insurance as a result of being better educated.
  3. Funding is fungible: Moreover, Mark’s (and arguably Iain Mansfield’s) approach to higher education policy seems to be a zero-sum one. For example, we either have number caps or we have those other public spending cuts listed above. But reintroducing student number caps does not guarantee more funding or relieve the pressure for cuts on other higher education things. The Russell Group made this same mistake when student number caps were first removed: they thought it would be a terrible idea because it would inevitably lead to more spending on teaching and less spending on research. But that is not what happened. In the event, because the arguments put forward were so strong, the higher education sector managed to get more resources for teaching and more resources for research even while other areas of public spending were being cut as a result of austerity. Assuming there is a fixed predetermined budget for higher education is akin to arguing that the only way to fix the fact that some schools are crumbling is to have fewer school places; in fact, you can decide to spend less on some other government programme and find the money to fix those buildings and deliver sufficient school places. The most effective lobbying is imaginative; if we make a strong enough case for the benefits of our sector, then it is possible to win a greater share of government spending. Ah, you might say, but doesn’t the debate in Northern Ireland today about student number caps prove Mark is right? No it doesn’t because the budget of the Northern Ireland administration is only £15 billion – it has very little room for manœuvre and is in no way comparable to decisions at Westminster.
  4. Let’s go round again: There’s a circularity to Mark’s argument which suggests he may not even quite agree with himself. He says he is aiming to float an idea but is evidently not quite sure whether it deserves to stay on the surface or to sink to the bottom, concluding: ‘I am not calling for a straightforward return of student number controls today or tomorrow’. While it is good to have a vibrant debate about the options, I think we should exercise due care and attention before encouraging policymakers, however tentatively, to set foot on such a rickety raft.
  5. Bridging the divide: At one level, and this feels very important, there is actually less difference between the output of Wonkhe and the output of HEPI on the whole issue of student number caps than has been realised. In the end, whether number caps exist or not in the short to medium-term, policymakers have to respond eventually to changes in demand for education or they risk losing significant support. That is the key lesson from Peter Mandler’s brilliant book on postwar education. It is also the key lesson from Andrew Norton’s most recent HEPI paper, which is one of the best things HEPI has ever published but which was sadly overshadowed by the start of the pandemic. Norton notes some people lose out in the interim before policy catches up with people’s aspirations, labelling them ‘unlucky generations who miss out on university because policy cannot respond effectively to population growth.’ 

In the end, just as you do not get more student accommodation by over regulating the supply of beds (another issue on which I do not see eye-to-eye with Wonkhe’s output), you cannot get a sensible balance between the supply and demand of students by overly regulating new courses, new institutions and new student places.

Come and work for us!

But perhaps some readers will feel neither Mark nor I has delivered a knock-out blow. Policymaking is hard, and much harder than Punch-and-Judy style knockabouts would have anyone believe. It is also why it is so interesting and such a fun area in which to work.

So … don’t forget, there’s still time to come and work for HEPI to wrestle with such ideas as our new head of policy – the deadline for applying is this Friday, 11 November. It is a role that comes with great progression opportunities: previous incumbents have gone on to head up MillionPlus and LondonHigher.

To do the job, you do not have to agree with me or any other HEPI staff member and you can even agree more with Mark; you just have to be fascinated by the ins-and-outs of higher education and / or research policy across the whole UK.

And if you’ve reached the end of this blog, or read the whole volume of material on student number caps published over the past few days, you may very well be the perfect person for the role!


  1. Rod Bristow says:

    I’m on your side of the argument Nick, for one simple reason. The Robbins Report recommendation is right: ‘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.’ Solutions should (surely can) be found to meet this principle.

  2. Paul Woodgates says:

    I have enjoyed the back and forth between HEPI and Wonkhe on this – makes for a good debate!

    I start off from the view that controls on student numbers are a bad thing and that their abolition was a cause for celebration – for all the reasons that Nick sets out very effectively here. And I am wholly convinced by his argument that we would face continual nibbling away of numbers once controls are imposed – the pressure on public finances would make that inevitable.

    But I have to say I also see merit in Mark Leach’s argument that protecting the unit of resource could at some point in its downward trajectory become more important than avoiding number controls. Personally, I support Nick’s argument that “it’s not all about the RAB” but I fear that as the RAB charge counts as public spending now, whereas the extra income tax graduates will pay only counts at some point in the future, it will not cut much ice in the Treasury.

    But ultimately I come down on the Hillman side of the argument. Had there been number controls in the recent admissions round, some students would not be studying where they are today. Some of those might not have gone to university at all; others might have gone somewhere else – but that could have displaced other students who would not now be at university. If the Government’s objective is to save public money, it is inevitable that number controls would mean fewer students. But the real point here is that would not be because they weren’t good enough or couldn’t secure a place. It would not even be because someone somewhere had decided that the course they were applying for was “low quality” or that some other qualification would be better value for money for them or for the state. It would be simply because an arbitrary limit set in Whitehall had been reached. I can’t imagine explaining to those individuals how that could possibly be fair.

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