Back-door cuts to university places could provoke ‘clash of the classes’

Government plans to cap student numbers just as the UK faces an explosion in the number of 18-year-olds would be the “death knell” for social mobility, academic experts warn.

More than half of young people are now going into higher education, but senior academics believe that with the Treasury anxious to rein in spiralling student loan debt, universities will face a cap on numbers by the back door, with the government cutting support for what it calls “low-quality” courses.

Lee Elliot Major, professor of social mobility at Exeter University, says such a move would be disastrous. “If you don’t expand numbers there is going to be a clash of the classes over university entrance. Limiting numbers would be the death knell for social mobility and widening access.”

He says it would inevitably be the poor who would lose out if places were squeezed. “The evidence suggests that we always underestimate the ability of the middle class to manoeuvre and retain their positions in society, and that includes higher education.”

The issue has acquired new urgency, because at the end of 2018 the Office for National Statistics changed the way student loans are treated on the government’s books, adding £12bn to the year’s public deficit overnight. The change reflects the fact that around 45% of the value of student loans is never repaid, and will now be treated as part of government expenditure.

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Demographic changes are also increasing the pressure. The number of 18-year-olds, which has fallen for a decade, will begin an unprecedented 10-year growth phase next year. The Higher Education Policy Institute thinktank (Hepi) predicts 500,000 new places may be needed to keep pace.

Nick Hillman, director of Hepi and a former special adviser on universities, thinks the government is almost certain to cap numbers and says he is “vehemently opposed” to it. “Stopping funding for ‘low-value’ courses is a back-door way of doing that,” he says. “I would back almost any policy change before that. Education is life-transforming.”

Two weeks ago the Guardian reported that the government might replicate the four Ofsted categories used in schools, flagging up university courses they considered inadequate – which could potentially lose funding or be closed down. Graduate earnings were expected to be the bar by which the government would judge courses.

Ironically, academics say, the education secretary, Gavin Williamson, could end up making his own degree unviable. Williamson studied social sciences at Bradford University, a choice that may not come out well. Graduates from Bradford in the equivalent subject today, sociology, have average earnings of £17,500 after three years. Graduates of the equivalent course at Cambridge earned an average of £29,000, according to figures from Unistats and from new official data, the longitudinal educational outcomes, which tracks them through their tax returns.

Angry academics say that such a plan, as well as threatening the arts and humanities, where starting salaries are typically much lower than law or the sciences, poses a risk to modern universities in regions that are struggling economically. They say graduates who stay and work in these areas will typically command lower salaries than their counterparts in London – but this is no mark of failure.

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Evan Clark, a recent graduate with a social work degree from Staffordshire University, says when he applied to study he had no idea how much he would earn on graduation because it wasn’t a priority. “I am a social worker now, looking after people with learning disabilities. For me it is all about trying to give other people the same opportunities that I’ve had.”

Prof Ieuan Ellis, pro vice-chancellor at Staffordshire, says a numbers cap is a “bad solution”, particularly in an area like his where only 28% of young people go to university, compared with a national average of 50%.

“There aren’t too many people going to university in this country and there certainly aren’t too many going in this region,” he says. “Judging the value of courses based on salary alone would threaten the future of modern universities in more deprived areas, and that would be absolutely wrong.”

Stoke-on-Trent, where the university is based, is classified as the 14th most deprived local authority in England, following the decline of the ceramics industry.

“The idea that widening participation into universities is just about getting a few extra poor people into Oxbridge completely misses the point,” Ellis says. “Talent is evenly distributed, but opportunity is not. We are giving our talented students that opportunity to realise their potential.”

He points out that Staffordshire, which was awarded gold in the government’s Teaching Excellence Framework, educates students to become teachers, social workers, nurses and police officers. It also encourage graduates studying digital technologies to set up businesses locally. “These graduates are incredibly important to the region but these aren’t the sort of jobs that have high starting salaries,” he says.

A Department for Education spokesperson says: “We want everyone who has potential to be able to access a high-quality education. However, we must not allow the credibility of our world-class universities to be damaged by pockets of low quality that do not deliver high-quality teaching or value for money. We support the Office for Students in using its powers where it finds providers are not working in students’ interests.”

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