With few alternatives available after A-levels, young people will head off to university in huge numbers this month. From 2015, government lifted the cap on the number of students each institution can admit, with the knock-on effect being that many Russell universities are now accepting students previously aiming for ‘middle’ institutions – if necessary, by lowering grade requirements. By implication the ‘middles’ are now aiming at students who would previously have attended the ex-polytechnics and colleges of higher education lower down the pecking order. In turn, many of these are finding it increasingly difficult to fill places – some report 20-30% falls, with fears of impending financial crisis.
Students will see things differently. With a blurring of the boundaries between ‘selecting’ and ‘recruiting’ universities, why go to Solent if you can go to Sussex or Surrey? Why go to Kingston if you can squeeze into Kent? But an admissions free for all is not the way to break down access barriers –indeed the elite universities will continue to be well out of reach for most applicants. Neither is it acceptable that while some universities ‘grow’ others risk closure.
But few education campaigners are prepared to take on universities, maybe fearing that some of the more exclusive might decide to opt out of receiving any public funds completely – forming a UK Ivy League. Few are prepared to challenge the ‘research reputation’ of leading universities and ask if this really does benefit the teaching and learning of students. No doubt fondly remembering their own experience of higher education – moving away from family and friends for a relatively carefree three years, fewer still are prepared to consider whether, like state schools, universities should have a strong local element in their recruiting practices.
While campaigners rightly target grammar schools for creating division and promoting elitism, many forget that in higher education – a sector which should be considered a significant part of a future National Education Service (with approaching 40% of school leavers applying) selecting by ability and thus excluding students has long been the norm.