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Student number caps: For the many not the few (But what if the few matter too?)

  • 6 April 2023
  • By Nick Hillman
  • In HEPI’s final blog before the Easter break, HEPI Director Nick Hillman returns to the thorny issue of student number caps, arguing they’re for the many not the few when – in this instance – it’s the few that matter more.

After a record-breaking three months in terms of engagement with HEPI’s output, we’re pausing the HEPI daily blog for the Easter weekend. But before we temporarily drop off your radar, I want to return briefly to that old chestnut of student number controls.

The issue was under constant debate in 2022. It hasn’t gone away in 2023 but is perhaps not being considered as much as it should be.

  • For example, the pros and cons of Scotland’s student funding model, with no fees for local students staying in Scotland but tight number caps, barely featured in the recent election to become the new First Minister.
  • Meanwhile, south of the border Labour are suspiciously quiet about what they plan to do if their long-held and large poll lead translates into a majority in the House of Commons at the next general election. They’ve hinted they are more supportive of the absence of number controls in England than they were at the time the Conservatives were lifting them – it’s like Keith Joseph’s ratchet effect in action. But if Labour are going to tackle the high fees they say they so dislike (and boost student maintenance too?), they need to save money somewhere and until they come up with a costed student funding policy, the return of number caps must remain a real possibility.
  • At the same time, the Westminster Government has itself formally consulted upon the return of student number caps and has kept us all on tenterhooks for a year on whether it will proceed with the policy or not. (The original consultation came on the back of the Augar report which was published in 2019. I know higher education policy can be slow but the school pupils applying to higher education when the Augar report came out graduated last summer. That’s how snail-like higher education policy has been in recent years, thanks to all the political turmoil.)

The current quietness from pretty much all the political parties is unlikely to be sustainable in the run up to an election, when voters have an undeniable right to know what they are voting for and against (unless perhaps Dearing, Browne and Augar are followed by yet another review designed, in Harold Wilson’s words, to ‘take minutes and waste years’).

I regard myself as a progressive and a liberal and have spent most of my adult life working in education. So I struggle with the idea that one appropriate function of the education system and those who work within it is to block access to education to people who are likely to benefit from it.

That’s why, in theory at least, the Lifelong Loan Entitlement (LLE) is such a big and enticing idea – Ministers say it will operate like London’s Oyster card, with the holder deciding what to study, where and when (but unlike an Oyster card, you’ll only pay up afterwards and only if your educational journey turns out to have been financially sound).

I worry the LLE is already not as big and bold an offer as it has been spun, given the age limit of 60 which means it’s far from ‘lifelong’, and the Treasury haven’t even got their hands on it yet. (It’s completely implausible that a Treasury which worries about the write-off costs [the RAB charge] on regular student loans and which appears to think the Office for Students’s B3 conditions are too mild will pump billions into the LLE.) But the underlying principle is the right one: more access to more education for more people.

So why does the idea of capping student numbers elsewhere remain so enticing to many? I think there are three reasons that are worth understanding.

  1. The stretch on resources. If you back removing student number caps on social media (go on, try it!), you’ll be contradicted by people who say that resources in higher education are already far too stretched. People ask questions like: where is the student accommodation to come from? That’s a fair query of course. But capping places is not the only answer to it: the response to stretched student services could be more student services, not fewer students. The refusal to link fees in England to inflation means teaching home students is a loss-making activity and institutions are being encouraged either to pile ‘em high, sell ‘em cheap and / or to cram in as many full-fee international students as possible. Policymakers could instead decide fees for home students need to reflect inflation, as they used to do under Blair / Brown – and completely uncontroversially so. (We still talk about the era of £3,000 fees but they were only £3,000 for one single year.) I don’t agree with the argument that the best answer to insufficient resources is fewer students in part because we don’t apply it elsewhere: if there aren’t enough beds in the NHS because of growing demand, we recognise more beds are needed; if there aren’t enough beds in student cities, we are tempted to say let’s have fewer students but we could just provide more beds (if, say, planning rules were improved).
  2. A second reason why people sometimes like caps is to discourage people from one route (traditional higher education) and to encourage them to try out other routes instead (like apprenticeships). Even if the supply of higher-level apprenticeships for younger people were incentivised to the degree necessary for this to be a meaningful policy rather than rhetoric, it would be problematic for liberals because it’s forcing people to do what you think is best for them, rather than giving them good information to decide that fact for themselves. It’s like the policy which assumes T-Levels can only be made successful if BTECs are defunded whereas, if T-Levels were as good as Ministers say, you wouldn’t need to kill off the competition by fiat.
  3. But the one thing that seems to get missed most often is that the debate about caps is really the old battle between the interests of large groups versus the interests of individuals or much smaller groups: communitarianism versus individualism. The argument runs that student number caps are necessary because they will improve the student experience for the many who do make it in. The two-and-a-half million students will, it is said, benefit from shutting out a few tens of thousands more who could drag the average quality of education down. But what if the excluded students include someone who would really have brought your seminars to life or who would have exposed you to culture you’d missed or who might have become your future perfect life partner? And even if the argument that ‘more means worse’ were correct, let’s think about the other results: it may mean me having an experience that’s – say – 10% better, yet giving me ‘Somewhere to sit of a Tuesday lunchtime’ is not worth shutting someone else out altogether. I might want a slightly bigger Easter egg but if it comes at the cost of someone else not having an Easter egg at all, I’m not sure society should indulge me: it might be (mildly) in my interests but it’s not in yours and it’s not in the country’s interests either. And you can bet your bottom dollar that those squeezed out of English higher education by any reintroduction of student number caps would not hail from those families that have traditionally used our higher education system to their advantage but rather would come from more marginal groups.

In other words, reimposing student number caps might help the many at the cost of the few but, in this instance, it’s the more disadvantaged few that need the very support that an absence of a cap provides.

Finally, if you think student number caps are bureaucratic red tape that will never scratch the consciousness of regular voters, I’d urge you to think again. One of the best HEPI papers of recent times looks at the ebb and flow of the student numbers debate in Australia.

Sadly, the report was largely overlooked (as its publication coincided with the start of the pandemic) but the author Andrew Norton showed beyond reasonable doubt that policymakers cannot stand in the way of the juggernaut that is growing demand for higher education for very long.

And on that departing thought, may I wish you a chocolate-filled HEPI Easter!

  • HEPI and Advance HE are hosting a free webinar ‘Shifting priorities: has the teaching and learning agenda slipped off the sector’s radar?’ on Wednesday 26 April 2023 from 11am to 12.15pm, with a panel including: Professor Paul Bartholomew, Vice-Chancellor, Ulster University; Professor Nicola Dandridge, Professor of Practice in HE Policy at the University of Bristol and former Chief Executive of the Office for Students; and Professor Nazira Karodia, Deputy Vice Chancellor and Vice-Principal for Learning and Teaching, Edinburgh Napier University. You can register your place here.

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