Crash course in HE finance, by Stephen Court

8 Jul 10
Next month will bring the moment of truth for the record number of university applicants this year. On 19 August hundreds of thousands of A-level students find out their exam results.

Next month will bring the moment of truth for this year’s record numbers of university applicants. On 19 August hundreds of thousands of A-level students find out their exam results. Those who achieved the grades they needed should be accepted by the universities they have applied to. Those who haven’t will have to join the clearing scrum to try and get onto a course elsewhere.

But this summer’s A-level finalists will have even tougher competition to get a university place. They will be up against the tens of thousands of applicants who were unable to get on a course last year, and are hoping for better luck this time.

The demand for a place in higher education this autumn is at record levels. The number of UK applicants for a full-time undergraduate course is 22% higher than this time last year. In all, there are 106,000 applicants more than last year, bringing total applicants through Ucas to 571,000.

But the number of places on offer falls well short of those needed. In 2009, there were 482,000 accepted applicants. This year the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition has only added 10,000 funded places to last year’s total. The increase is less than the preceding Labour government had planned.

The strength of demand for higher education has not suffered, despite applicants knowing the difficulties last year’s graduates have had in finding employment. A survey published this week indicates that record numbers of applicants are chasing each graduate vacancy.

One issue causing universities anxiety is the UK’s relatively new points-based immigration system, which requires international students to provide evidence of sufficient finances to support themselves, and which last week proposed greater restrictions on skilled and highly skilled immigrants. UK university vice-chancellors said: ‘The success of the UK’s higher education sector depends on our ability to attract the most highly talented people to work here and study here. Anything that diminishes our ability to do this will undermine the quality of what we do and our ability to compete internationally.’

If the immigration system results in fewer international students applying for degree courses, that might slightly ease the pressure on home applicants. But vice-chancellors will miss the high-level fees that international students bring with them and the economy, and our universities will miss the fringe economic and social benefits they bring.

Meanwhile, there are concerns that funding cuts – particularly at the mooted rate of 25% or even higher – will hit jobs and undermine the quality of education provided for students. Analysis released today by the University and College Union estimates that a 25% cut in recurrent funding for higher education in England will lead to the loss of 22,000 university jobs overall, including 7,000 university teachers. This loss of teaching staff will increase the student/staff ratio from 18:1 to 20:1, increasing staff workload and impairing students’ learning experience.

Stephen Court is senior research officer at the University and College Union

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