University cannot become “free for all”

With the government planning to abolish student number controls in English universities, will the prestige of university be lost?

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

A report has recently been released by the Higher Education Policy Institute expressing concern over the government’s plans to abolish student number controls for English Universities. If the plans go ahead, by 2015/16 institutions will be free to recruit as many full-time undergraduate students as they can attract.

The government claims that the abolition will raise economic performance due to a higher number of high skilled workers being produced. But there are severe financial implications as the funding behind this scheme remains unclear. Additionally, the report predicts that this change will see a significant increase in students from the EU. But undergraduate students from EU countries already owe £690m in outstanding debts. Their loan repayments are already incredibly hard to collect and the report predicts “the challenges in collecting loan repayments from people outside the UK will will become even more significant”. This casts doubt on whether there will be any economic benefits at all.

There are also huge implications for the institution and very definition of university as we know it today. The government has promised that they will have a minimum bar to keep quality up, claiming “an applicant falling beneath a bar of, say, two Es at A-level (or equivalent) would need to use an exceptional route to gain entry”. But this is not terribly reassuring. With most students taking 3 A-levels, this is an exceptionally low standard to set to gain entry to something that calls itself “higher education”. There is a reason that there are requirements to get into university.

The report states: “One particularly notable new opportunity for higher education providers stemming from the removal of student number controls is the expansion of pathway courses that prepare those who are not yet quite ready for higher-level study.” This is not the purpose of university. We need to accept that university is not for everyone. It is an academic choice. Some people are just not meant for university and that is fine. That is what the entry requirements are there to determine. If you cannot achieve them then sadly university is not for you. What there needs to be is more apprenticeships and opportunities of that sort, so that university does not seem the only viable option in today’s harsh job climate.

It has been predicted that there will be a severe stretch on university budget and spending per student. With students paying such a high price to attend university this seems highly unfair. The future of university as we know it is very uncertain. If students are required to pay so much for a low quality experience that is open to everyone, the UK could see a decrease in the popularity of university. Students may well come to conclude that it is just not worth it. In addition there are only so many graduate jobs, therefore if the market becomes saturated with them we will still need people to do the entry level jobs. A 2013 jobs report by Adzunda revealed that there were more than 50 graduates competing for every entry level job. With a 60,000 per year increase in graduates predicted after the plans are implemented, there may well be no point in university.