Abolishing cap on student numbers is a good use of government money

Does my cap look good? Chris Radburn/PA Wire

In December, the chancellor of the exchequer, George Osborne, announced the government would be abolishing the existing cap on undergraduate student numbers from 2015. At the Guardian University Forum on February 26, Labour’s shadow minister for higher education, Liam Byrne, said that he did not yet know of a university vice-chancellor who thought the decision to abolish the cap was the best use of government money. The government estimates it will cost an extra £720m per year in 2018-19.

I do. Abolishing student number controls will not, in itself, solve the problems of higher education in the UK. It does, however, rid us of a system which tied up vice-chancellors and their admissions teams for years.

In the centralised economy that used to be British higher education, spending was regulated by the numbers of students each institution was allocated. Following the 2010 Browne Report on higher education funding, a market was intended to operate. Students could go where they chose and funding (now a loan) would follow.

This was a step too far, so a baroque system was constructed. “Good students” (first those with AAB grades, or the vocational equivalent, and later ABB grades) could go to any university that accepted them. Universities accepting the rest were regulated – particularly if they chose to charge the full £9,000 in fees per year.

The result was a hothouse of gaming, where some universities in the Russell Group, which represents 24 leading UK universities, went all out to expand, and others suffered. ABB students could trade up or hold out for scholarships or even cash in hand. Hapless admissions officers were dealing with fluctuating markets and yet still had to hit targets within a 3% tolerance limit for the government’s cap on student numbers. What a waste of intellectual energy. What a lottery for students.

The role of universities

The evidence is that higher education is good, for the individual and their lifetime earning capacity (and hence the tax they pay), for their future employment prospects and for their overall well-being. Why shouldn’t higher education be made widely available? Two arguments emerge.

The first is that the country just can’t afford it. Yet the evidence suggests that over time the Treasury will receive a 10% return from taxation on its investment. Compared with many other areas of public spending, this is not too bad. It is certainly good for regions where participation in higher education is less than it is in London and the South East. Students may consider going to university when they might not otherwise have done – and that should lead to innovation.

This provides the second argument. Not everyone should go to universities – some should do apprenticeships and focus on skills. Liam Byrne, in particular, is interested in degree status for higher level apprentices. That may be a good thing, but it is not the only answer.

Britain needs STEM – science, technology engineering and mathematics – but it also leads the world in creative industries. Design and technology skills grow not just in the Silicon Roundabout of east London, but also in the Silicon Cottages of the West Country.

Universities – and especially the newer universities – teach those skills. The new wave of entrepreneurs who are boosting the British economy are young graduates who may not be the highest achieving academically, but are cutting edge and in touch with the needs of the new generation. They can produce apps, write music, develop websites and are technologically savvy.

Underlying all this are two further concerns. First, that paying for the weaker students to go to university will deprive better students (and stronger universities) of funding and hence the UK of its pre-eminence in higher education. Secondly, that too many people will get degrees.

Exit, not entry

British higher education is, to my mind – and I am an Australian – among the best in the world. It grew from a system in Oxford and Cambridge which, in living memory, was famously undiscriminating (at least on academic grounds).

More seriously, the quality of education is enhanced, not diminished by its wider spread. Each university must set its own standards, and ensure that its graduates are worthy of their degree. But the real issue is not about those who enter higher education. It is how skilled they are when they leave.

When I was dean of the Schools of Arts and of Social Sciences at City University London, Rosie Waterhouse taught in the Masters in Investigative Journalism. She had worked on the Sunday Times Insight team, The Independent and Independent on Sunday, and for BBC Newsnight, but she did not have a degree. Over 20 years she had produced a body of work on false versus recovered memories of childhood sexual abuse which had won numerous prizes. Would she be able to undertake a PhD by prior publication?

We scoured the regulations at City and found that technically she could be admitted. I examined the immense varieties of practice in the UK. PhDs had been awarded to scientists with academic articles, but no degrees. Rosie taught journalism. Surely prestigious journalism counts? She had to produce an academic essay describing her practice, its theoretical basis and its impact. But if that was adequate, I argued, then the achievement should be recognised.

Rosie has now achieved her PhD after working extremely hard for three years.

The best universities add value. Taking students and transforming their lives is something we should aim at. Abolishing the student number controls will help.