Blog: Higher Education On The Brink?

With the market of higher education becoming more cut-throat, this year marks an increased panic amongst UK institutions to recruit students. This threatens the very fabric of higher education in this country, with the longevity and survival of its providers at risk. Why has this happened? What even is happening? And what can be done to reverse this trend?

The Problem

While over 400,000 students received the exciting news that they would be attending university – and embarking on a rollercoaster journey – an underlying and troubling question boiled to the surface.

The Government’s decision to remove the cap on students recruited by an institution has greatly contributed to the marketisation of higher education – as argued in my recent blog regarding unconditional offers – and this decision continues to leave the sector in peril. Combined with a demographic decline in 18-year-olds, the marketplace for higher education is more ferocious than ever, and one that could reshape higher education in a new mould, and possibly one that damages future students. 

The competition and the drive from universities to match the Government’s marketplace approach has led to a dramatic change in the make-up of higher education institutions across the country. Once results day had settled down and the champagne bottles were empty, there were still 352 higher education institutions attempting to attract students through clearing.

The hectic scramble of clearing has always been a bit of a ‘legend’ – I remember the panic for myself on the evening before results day way back in 2015, the preparation for the clearing hotlines – but it appears to be coming to fruition.

There were reports of university staff across the country posing as parents of students in order to gain insider information on what competitors were doing in terms of their entry grades. We also saw an absurd turn of events displayed on social media with various universities challenging one another.

To name no names, these ranged from Amazon Alexa gimmicks to free travel offers and even one university labelling others as boring on social media, disrespecting rival institutions – an apology came a few days thereafter. Ultimately, these demonstrate the danger of what higher education is becoming, a mockery of education, transitioning into an embodiment of the marketplace environment that has been ever-present in policy.

University Bankruptcy?

According to Nick Hillman, the director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, we are “closer to a bankruptcy scenario” for universities than any time in living memory.

With tuition fees not moving in line with inflation, universities are facing a worrying scrap for funding. The removal of the cap on student recruitment has meant that it really has become survival of the fittest for universities; the lowering of entry requirements has meant that students who would typically attend universities in the middle segment of league tables are getting sucked up by those institutions who traditionally perform better in league tables, and the food chain trickles down.

Therefore, we are facing a circumstance where some institutions simply do not have the student numbers, and with that, they simply don’t have the funding. The only solution that these institutions are being able to turn to is lowering their entry requirements even further, and thus recruiting students that (without the appropriate mechanisms in place) will drop out of university within the first two years of study.

Other experts are advising universities to sell land and make cut backs, in particular the cutting of courses with low uptake. This will seriously threaten the breadth of choice for students seeking a higher education, both in courses and institutions.

So Now What?

In a nutshell, the sector is becoming increasingly more cut-throat. The result of this is that students are concentrated into a proportion of institutions, leaving others fighting to lower their grades in order to attract the students needed to keep the institution afloat. If this trend continues then we risk a situation where institutions can no longer sustain themselves.

While competition for students is also being impacted by the lower number of 18-year-olds, particular policies continue to threaten the stability of the higher education sector.

Those in Westminster must realise the greatly damaging impact in having a lack of a cap on student numbers. The removal of the cap has enabled the forces of marketisation to steamroll the sector, engulfing recruitment and forcing universities into a dark corner and now, forcing them on the brink.

Jack O'Neill // Vice President, Education