Two government U-turns have placed many of Britain’s universities on life support

Universities used to attracting students who have missed their first-choice face new financial woes after the exams U-turn. 

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Gavin Williamson has made two U-turns over A-level grades that will have big implications for the shape of our university sector. The first is the abandonment of the attempt to offer students in England “moderated” GCSE and A-level grades based on teacher assessment, adjusted to account for how previous school years performed. The second is lifting the cap on the number of student places that universities can offer – abandoning the government’s attempt to curb the growth of Russell Group universities.

The second U-turn is a necessary response to the first. Because in “normal” years, some students miss their offers, most universities make more offers than they have places. School-leavers who miss the terms of their offer either end up at their second-choice university or apply through clearing to universities with spare places. Now, instead, there are many more students meeting the terms of the offer than there would be places.

But that decision has financial implications for universities that would usually have picked up the majority of their students through people missing their offers – either as their second-choice university, or through the clearing process.

Universities, in common with essentially every other part of British society and the economy, are facing new financial pressures due to coronavirus, and some are already on the brink. Without financial support, many universities which would have expected to pick up pupils via clearing and missed offers are unlikely to survive in the long term.

Of course, that may suit the government down to the ground. UK ministers frequently complain that the university sector has grown too large and that “too many” people now go to university. If this one-off increase in grades and places kills off universities that would otherwise have filled up their places through clearing, that will be all to the good as far as the government is concerned.

But they may have cause to regret that. Universities remain vitally important to the economic life of the cities and towns that host them – and a rapid collapse in the number of universities will have painful knock-on effects. Unless the government wants to face a yet more painful economic picture in 2021, subsidy for universities that lose out this year will be required. 

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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