HE funding

Interesting speech by Phil Willis about Higher Education (HE) funding that makes a number of very valid points about how the current funding situation is likely to influence the HE sector and, in particular, those who are currently applying for places at HE institutions.

Although he has openly criticised the Russell Group universities’ take on the recent funding cuts for being somewhat over the top, he does feel that this is not the right time to be cutting funding to Higher Education. I probably agree that using scare tactics – especially ones that are probably not demonstrably true – is not going to convince the government to reverse the proposed funding cuts, even if this decision does verge on the insane. I do also agree that now is not the time to reduce funding for Higher Education.

What is of more immediate concern is the real possibility that, despite the increase in the number of applications for university places, Russell Group universities are likely to reduce the number of places that they fill. There seems to be two reasons for this decision. One is that universities generally have a quota that sets a limit on how many places they can fill. There is currently a threat that English universities will be fined £3500 for every student over this quota. The quota essentially reflects a maximum amount of money that a university can expect to receive. If this maximum also reflects a real limit on the number of places that can reasonably be accommodated, then a fine may also make sense. It’s not fair on students if there aren’t sufficient resources for them all to get the support that they need to perform well during their degree. On the other hand, there is probably some flexibility in most programmes. Fining universities for going a few percent over quota probably achieves nothing (and effectively reduces the available resources) and the threat of such a fine probably means that universities would rather reject potentially good students than go slightly over quota.

The other reason for this reduction in places this coming year is also probably because the actual quota is not on a single year, but a total over the first 2 or 3 years. Many universities over-recruited last year, probably as a result of the financial crisis and people choosing to go to university rather than look for a job (One reason for this over-recruitment is that universities use data from previous years to work out how many students will accept their offers. To fill 100 places universities may make offers to 800 applicants. The current financial crisis means that data from previous years is not really valid and so guessing how many offers to make is very difficult). Many universities are therefore worried that if someone notices that they are coping with more students than their quota allows, their quota may be increased without a corresponding increase in funding. Balancing their overall quota by under-recruiting this coming year (and maybe next year) may make some sense, but it does mean that students who would have been accepted last year and would be accepted in future years, will be excluded to match what might be a somewhat artificial quota. It is probably also largely correct that under-recruitment this year won’t really make up – in resource terms – for the over-recruitment last year. Students in different years generally don’t sit in the same lecture theatres and don’t use the same laboratory space. It would seem reasonable for universities to argue for an exception during what are clearly exceptional times.

Something that Phil Willis’s speech highlighted is that although there is a quota for local students (essentially UK and EU) there isn’t a quota for foreign students who pay their own fees. The under recruitment this coming year probably means that universities can fill what will essentially be spare places by making more offers to foreign students (assuming they can attract them). Having foreign students in our universities is, in my view, generally a good thing. They tend to be quite good students so have a positive effect on those around them, and they bring extra money into the HE sector (and in return hopefully get a valuable degree). However, the more foreign students in our universities, the fewer local students we can accept. Under-recruiting local students this year and effectively freeing up places that can be filled by foreign students seems wrong to me, especially if those being excluded would have been accepted in the recent past and would be accepted in the near future.

What is more, there must be some value associated with our graduates. It has been argued that Physics, for example, underpins something like 6% (~ £100 billion) of the UK economy. If we graduate 3000 Physics students a year each of whom work for 30 years, there will be something like 100000 Physics graduates in the UK economy at any one time. One could then argue that each graduate underpins about £1 million. This is clearly an oversimplification and increasing the number of Physics graduates isn’t going increase the UK economy by £1 million per graduate. Foreign students also, of course, bring new money into the UK, which is clearly a good thing. However, reducing the number of local physics graduates could, however, have a very detrimental effect on the economy since there must be some minimum needed to sustain this part of the economy. There must be a point at which increasing the number of foreign students – at the expense of local students – could damage the UK economy. The same must be true in other areas and reducing the intake of local students, particularly in the sciences, at a time when we need to stimulate the economy seems like a potentially damaging decision. It feels like another short-sighted decisions that will appear to save money in the short term (although even this may not be true) but potentially cost us in the long term.

I think I understand why universities are doing this. It may even be true that during these difficult financial times, predicting how many students will accept offers is very difficult. Over-recruiting again could be very damaging if we don’t have the resources to accommodate all the incoming students and so under-recruiting may well the sensible option. I do, however, feel that we will be disadvantaging students who won’t get a university place simply because of the year they finish school. Although I don’t necessarily think the current situation will lead to a sudden change in the ratio of foreign to local students, I do think we have to be very careful about the balance between foreign and local students. Foreign students do bring money into the UK economy now (in exchange for a good degree), but local students contribute to the economy for the rest of their lives. We have to make sure that we get this balance right.

As an aside, I believe that Phil Willis is not intending on standing again at the next election which is, I think, a great shame. From what I’ve seen, he’s been a very good chairman of the Science and Technology committee and I find his views very sensible and well informed. He also seems to be well regarded and has some influence. It is possible that his criticism of the cuts to research and HE funding could have some impact. I hope that we get a few more equally sensible MPs after the upcoming election.

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