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HE White Paper and what it means for UAL

Written by Nigel Carrington
Published date 29 September 2011

The Government published its White Paper on regulation and post-2012 student funding in the summer. As you know, universities were required to set their 2012 fees before the White Paper was published. We set our 2012 new undergraduate fee at the maximum £9,000, coupling this with a bursary and outreach package which commits us to spend about £750 of each student’s £9,000 fee on these widening participation initiatives.

The White Paper itself sets out a series of detailed proposals to change the regulatory and funding arrangements for higher education.

David Willetts launched the HE White Paper in June

For those who want the detail, you might like to review the briefing paper produced by the University’s Central Planning Unit for our recent Court of Governors Awayday which you will find here: Briefing on HE White paper. For the true enthusiast, you can access the entire White Paper from the BIS website

The purpose of this short piece, though, is to highlight the four main issues for our University arising from the White Paper and related Government/HEFCE decisions. We had previously been aware of two of those issues (loss of the London Weighting and the almost complete withdrawal of funding for our postgraduate courses) but two are new.

As regards the two known but now confirmed risks, it seems clear that HEFCE will not be in a position to maintain the London Weighting (approximately £500 per Home/EU student) which has to date been included in our block grant to reflect the higher costs of London-based universities. This will put us and all other London universities at a resource disadvantage against similar courses outside London which charge fees of £9,000: there is nothing in the new fee regime which allows us to charge fees to reflect our higher cost base if universities outside London also push their fees up to the £9,000 cap.

As regards the loss of postgraduate funding, there is nothing in the White Paper to suggest that the Government intends to backtrack on the withdrawal of public subsidy for postgraduate courses in our disciplines. This means that we face the near certainty that there will be a major reduction in public funding for our postgraduate courses in 2012 and a complete withdrawal of funding in 2013. We shall have no alternative but to raise postgraduate fees again in 2012 as that public funding disappears and it is hard to see how our competitors could act differently from us given other pressures on University finances. 

UAL students demonstrate in November 2010

I have already talked about these issues at my All Staff Meetings and so I will not dwell further on them here. However, there are two important new proposals in the White Paper which have potentially very serious implications for us.

The first is the proposal that institutions be allowed unrestrained recruitment of students who have achieved grades AAB+ at A level (or equivalent qualifications). The Government’s stated goal here is to increase student choice by encouraging universities to compete aggressively for AAB+ students. About 65,000 Home/EU students have AAB+ or equivalent grades so, in order to make unrestrained recruitment of these students possible without increasing the total number of Home/EU students in HE, the Government will first reduce each University’s student control number (the maximum number of UK/EU students it can recruit) by the number of AAB+ students in that institution before the new regime came into force. The challenge for each University will then be to recruit back at least the same number of AAB+ students in 2012-13. 

The problem, of course, for institutions like ours is that we do not generally recruit on the basis of A level grades because excellence and potential in our disciplines can only be assessed by portfolio, interview or audition. Based on historical recruitment patterns, we estimate that between 15-20% of our entrants have AAB+ grades (a relatively high percentage within the sector) but, unless we changed our recruitment criteria to target students by reference to their A level grades (clearly inappropriate for most of our subjects), we would risk a reduction of our student numbers because we failed to recruit in 2012 as many AAB+ students as we have historically recruited.

  This would seem an absurd consequence but one which will logically follow from the White Paper proposals unless we are successful in the very aggressive lobbying that we and other institutions in our position are currently undertaking: we have asked the Government to exclude from the AAB+ rule institutions which primarily recruit on the basis of portfolio, interview or audition.

The second new proposal in the White Paper is that all universities will have their maximum permitted student numbers reduced by 8% in order to create a pool of 20,000 places which will be reallocated to institutions which have an average full-time fee of £7,500 or less. The Government’s goal here is stated as being to increase choice but most commentators believe that its real goal is to force down the fees of institutions which set those fees at levels higher than the Government believes were necessary.  In our case, though, the higher cost of our provision makes it impossible for us to reduce our fees and we would therefore have no opportunity to “bid back” for the places we have lost. Again, we are lobbying hard to have this provision moderated for institutions with high cost provision but failure to win that argument is likely to result in our losing at least 250 Home/EU undergraduates in 2012.

Over recent weeks I have participated in a number of meetings designed to ensure that the new White Paper does not have the (surely unintentional) consequences summarised above. If the new provisions are introduced in their current form, though, we will inevitably see some shrinkage of our Home/EU undergraduate numbers in 2012. This, in turn, would require us to reduce our cost base accordingly or to seek to increase the number of international students to compensate for the reduction in Home/EU students.  That is a choice that we should not be asked to make.