On 5 December 2013 the then-chancellor George Osborne announced that the coalition government would be lifting the cap on how many students universities could accept. From 2014-15, universities would be able to accept up to 30,000 more students, and from 2015-16 the cap would be removed altogether.
This policy change came three years after the same government revealed that university tuition fees would be increasing from £3,290 to £9,000 a year, transfering much of the cost from the government to students. According to the Economist, in 2017 nearly half of universities’ funding came from tuition fees, compared to a quarter in 2005-06. The Guardian reported that “For less research-focused universities, fees make up to 80 per cent of their income.”
With universities relying heavily on tuition fees as their source of funding, and no prescribed limit on the number of students they could take, the relationship between the two suddenly shifted. Instead of students competing with each other for a limited number of university places, universities would now be competing to recruit the best students in the largest numbers.
Three years since the policy was put into action, its impact is becoming apparent. On the one hand, the marketisation of higher education has led to universities coming up with new tactics to recruit students. On the other, the admissions procedure appears to have become less rigorous. One positive consequence is that students who wish to go on to higher education now have far more choice about where to do so. Also, the best universities are no longer reserved for a relatively small minority of the top achievers.
More controversially, the policy also means universities, with an eye to accepting a wider pool of students, have relaxed the requirements to gain entry to their courses, now seemingly more interested in the number of students they recruit than whether they are suitable for the university or the course.
This can be seen in the increase in students going through clearing, the process of allotting unfilled university places after results day, where entry requirements are often more flexible. In the days before the cap was lifted, clearing was a last resort, which offered places on less popular courses where spaces remained. Now – with the exception of Oxbridge – almost all universities advertise places this way, with courses on offer including Chemistry at Bristol, History at Exeter and Biology at Leeds, all of which are in the Russel Group and rank in the top 20 UK universities. Last year 17 of the 24 Russell Group universities advertised at least one course via clearing. Sheffield, a Russell Group university, has doubled the number of students it admits through clearing year-on-year since 2015. Liverpool, also in the Russel Group, was advertising places on over 100 courses.
Last year at the end of results day 11,180 students had secured places through clearing, according to Ucas, the university admissions service. This is more than twice as many as four years previously in 2013, when 5,570 students found places through clearing on results day.
With more places on offer, universities are able to accept more students regardless of the grades they achieve.
Universities state on their websites which grades are required for specific courses, and they will stipulate certain grades when they give out offers to prospective students. However, in reality many students receive places on their desired courses regardless of whether they actually achieve the grades.
It was revealed at the end of July that there has been a surge in the number of students receiving unconditional offers, ie those where the student is not expected to achieve any further grades at all. This year 23 per cent of applicants received at least one unconditional offer, compared to one per cent in 2013. This means five years ago, 2,500 students held unconditional offers, whereas this year the number was 58,000.
A spokesperson for Universities UK defended this development, saying: “It is simply not in the interests of universities to take students without the potential to succeed at university.” In spite of this, unconditional offers were more likely to go to students predicted BBB or ABB than those predicted AAA, according to the latest Ucas report, suggesting unconditional offers are not intended for the highest-achieving students.
As well as placing less importance on students’ grades, universities are going to new lengths to recruit students online.
In order to target young people directly, universities have taken to using Snapchat and WhatsApp to advertise university places and give out offers to students. Many universities, including Goldsmiths, York, Southampton and Reading all advertise on Google Ads. YouTuber Evan Edinger even made a sponsored video advertising SOAS, a London university. He videoed himself attending an open day and talking about the perks of studying there, although as he admits in the video, he himself did not attend the university.
According to the Telegraph, “Some universities are offering cash bonuses, laptops, gym membership and even free flights in an attempt to lure in students.”
One of the main supposed purposes of lifting the university admissions cap was to improve social mobility and make it easier for disadvantaged students to gain access to higher education.
“The government hoped competition would allow the undergraduate population to continue to grow, thus widening access to higher education, and would raise teaching standards,” according to David Willetts, universities minister from 2010 to 2014.
In some ways this seems to have worked.
Despite increasing tuition fees, more students from deprived areas are now attending university. In 2010, 14 per cent of children from the most deprived areas went to university, in 2016 it was 20 per cent. However it is mainly low-ranking universities that disadvantaged students get into, and some students remain excluded from Russell Group options.
But as university admissions have gone up, so has the percentage of students dropping out, with university drop-out rates increasing for the third successive year.
The most recent available statistics show that in 2015-16, 6.4 per cent of home students starting a full-time first degree course in England quit before the end of first year, continuing a trend which started in 2011-12 when 5.7 per cent of students dropped out. In the worst affected universities, about one in five students quit before the end of first year.
The universities with the highest drop-out rates correlate with the lowest-ranking institutions that more deprived young people are more likely to attend. These universities include London Metropolitan (19.5 per cent drop-out rate), the University of Bolton (17 per cent drop-out rate), Glyndŵr University (16.4 per cent) and Middlesex (16.4 per cent), none of which feature in the top 100 UK universities. At the other end of the spectrum less than one per cent drop out of Cambridge.
Nick Hillman, the director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, said the trend was “depressing”:
“My personal hunch is that it is more to do with the extra students that have been recruited in recent years. There are more students from disadvantaged backgrounds, with non-standard qualifications, and some universities have lowered their entry standards.”
“Some of these changes are welcome but students from underrepresented groups do need more support than others and they may not always be getting it in full.”
If removing the university admissions cap is supposed to widen the pool of applicants and open up opportunities for disadvantaged students, then these students need to receive support throughout their degrees. Otherwise it is likely they will continue to face the same barriers to academic success as they did at school. If social mobility is the goal, then universities need to go further than offering students university places.
It is a separate problem that universities accepting some students unconditionally means that the students may not be suitable for or as committed to higher education. If you recruit students regardless of their qualifications or suitability, without any particular plans in place to support them, then it is less likely they will reach their full potential or complete their degrees. Students are being encouraged to apply to university through unconventional means (via Snapchat, with cash incentives), they collect a pile of debt from tuition fees and maintenance loans but all too often they leave university within a year with no qualification.
The leap in unconditional offers has other impacts. Research has shown that when students hold unconditional offers, they perform worse in exams. This wouldn’t particularly matter, except for the fact A-levels are not a single stepping stone to university, and may still appear on your CV after university, particularly if you fail to complete your degree and they are your most recent qualifications.
In some ways lifting the cap on admissions is highly logical. If the demand is there from students, and universities wish to accommodate them, then it makes little sense to stop this from happening. However, the long-term consequences of this policy are difficult to predict. As long as universities are receiving most of their funding from students, it will be their priority to recruit as many students as they can take, regardless of whether this is necessarily a positive thing for the university or the student.
Research carried out by AAT, the Association of Accounting Technicians, released on Tuesday, reported that employers valued practical experience like apprenticeships over degree courses. On Wednesday the world’s largest job site Indeed released research dispelling the myth that to get a high-earning job you need a degree. Their findings included ten non-graduate jobs that pay over the average UK wage and the statistic that nearly a third of graduates earn less than their peers who completed an apprenticeship.
A culture – spearheaded by government policy – that placed more value on a wide range of post A-level options would offer young people more choice for their futures and reduce the homogeneity of post-school options.