Universities want ‘bums on seats’ because you created a market, minister

Jul 28, 2018 by

Photo by Lloyd Dirks on Unsplash

Smita Jamdar –

The rise in unconditional offers has upset the universities minister. Perhaps he should speak to his colleagues about it

On Thursday Sam Gyimah, the universities minister, bemoaned the rise of unconditional offers as a “bums on seats” approach to higher education that “undermines the credibility of the university system”. He was referring to new Ucas figures that show that almost one in four 18-year-olds applying to university in England, Wales and Northern Ireland have received at least one unconditional offer – meaning they are accepted on to a course regardless of what grades they end up getting – up from just 1% back in 2013.

The other worry often expressed is that A-level students with an unconditional offer may ease up in their efforts to get the best-possible grades in the last few months of their schooling.

What Gyimah fails to mention, however, is that this big increase in unconditional offers has arisen as the direct result of the government’s policies to increase competition in the universities sector. “The changes we are making to higher education funding will in turn drive a more responsive system. To be successful, institutions will have to appeal to prospective students.” So stated the government’s higher education white paper of 2011, the document that explicitly heralded the creation of a market in higher education.

Two years later, then chancellor George Osborne announced that the government would be removing each university’s cap on student numbers, allowing them to recruit as many students as they wanted for the first time. He claimed that “freeing higher education institutions from number controls will help improve quality in the sector by increasing competition and allowing institutions who face strong demand to expand”.

It is extraordinarily incongruent for a university minister who has overseen the stoking up of competition between providers – to the point where uncertainties over student recruitment is probably the number one risk facing universities – to then complain that universities are too focused on student recruitment.

Really, minister: if you develop a system where the success and financial stability of universities depends on their capacity to appeal to increasing numbers of prospective students in competition, can you be surprised when they do what they can to ensure those prospective students choose them over their rivals up the road? After all, there are few, if any, markets where providers thrive by introducing ever-higher barriers to access for their potential consumers, except those “exclusive” brands that are only affordable to the very rich, and that’s hardly the kind of higher education the country needs.

Source: Universities want ‘bums on seats’ because you created a market, minister | Smita Jamdar | Opinion | The Guardian

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