Uncapping the Future

A few months ago I wrote a piece here on  my views of how the changes announced in the Autumn Statement might affect universities like ours, specifically the impact of removing the cap on student numbers.

Since then, this has been written about and discussed in detail. Until we get throug hteh next two years of UCAS entry then we can’t draw conclusions completely. In the last week or so, two new articles have appeared on this very subject.

One thing to bear in mind is that the next General Election is not that far away, and over on the wonkhe website, Debbie McVitty suggests:

prudent analysts may be withholding judgement pending confirmation that a future government is ready to stand by this commitment and to source the sustainable flow of funding that would make it a reality

She proposes 4 scenarios, based on ranges of supply and demand for HE places, and concludes that:

A more robust approach would be to consider what interventions will best secure a sustainable pipeline of qualified and informed applicants to higher education (significantly enhanced IAG springs to mind) and how policymakers can identify and share the risks of innovation with higher education providers in order to ensure a meaningful social benefit to increased participation.

Over on the Times Higher websiteBahram Bekhradnia  (president of the Higher Education Policy Institute) writes:

Recently the pages of THE have been filled with more cheerleaders urging the government to go further and faster. My advice to these credulous souls is that they should be careful what they wish for.

He worries that the market in HE that the coalition government has sought to create does not exist – indeed capping numbers, setting a limit on fees and tinkering with core and margin numbers has had little effect in creating a free market.

At first, the coalition government introduced a pseudo-market, involving competition around “highly qualified students”, but that has had a dysfunctional and erratic impact. The complete relaxation of student number controls appears to be a final and desperate attempt to create a market in higher education where there has been none so far.

It is an experiment that is unlikely to succeed. The additional student numbers will have to be paid for. Given that the sale of the student loan book is unlikely to cover the cost, either the funds will be found by the government itself, which is improbable, or students will pay even more, which is possible. Otherwise the additional students will have to be accommodated without a commensurate increase in funding and with negative consequences for quality and standards.

This last point is worth noting – as costs in universities rise, and while the top end of fees is capped then gradually the money available to support teaching and learning will reduce.

For the financially secure institutions which easily recruit their self-identified quota of undergraduate numbers, removing the student number ca may not be a problem: they will have no new entrants into the “market” to compete against, and will  be able to campaign to remove the cap on fees and tackle that contradiction in market philosophy.

Removing the cap on recruitment creates a challenge for those universities who might struggle to recruit in future One outcome might be a further increase in private provision, particularly for low delivery costs subjects, or more delivery of HE through FE and commercial partners. Both of these will create a challenge for some universities. These lower ranked institutions, or those who find to harder to recruit undergraduate numbers, will find themselves more exposed to a market environment, with aggressive competitors who will be prepared to differentiate on price.

In terms of what my university can do to address this challenge, well I’ll return to that in my “we can be better than this” series of blog posts.


The Student Deal

A new publication this week from PA Consulting, “The Student Deal” provides thoughts on looking beyond student experience and proposing a deal that engages students, providers and governments. I’m late to the party on this one – Registrarism has already blogged about it here, but I’ll add my thoughts and how this approach should be considered by a non-elite university.

PA recognise that HE is an international buyers market, but question the usefulness of “student experience”, as currently defined, as a useful metric:

“This preoccupation with student experience metrics and satisfaction has been strongly encouraged by Government and features heavily in composite university league tables….

Most current approaches to student experience reify the notion of the student -as-customer and apply quasi-commercial customer service approaches to the transactional aspects of student-provider relations.

This is apparent in the structure of the National Student Survey (NSS), which unwittingly invites comparisons between the ‘student journey’ and the elements of a packaged holiday, with the NSS akin to the TripAdvisor of higher education.”

However PA contend that  the language of the student-as-customers neglects the essential mutual commitment between students and universities and instead propose a multifaceted student deal.

Students study for a variety of reasons, and not just to consume educational and related services, they are instead investing in a relationship that they  hope will enhance the rest of their lives, and so need to be concerned with the benefits of developing a relationship with a particular university which goes beyond the subject material that they study.

PA recognise that a number of universities are trying to tackle this through the idea of graduate attributes – the Staffordshire Graduate would be a good example of this. This is in recognition of the fact that employers want to recruit people with T-shaped attributes – a blend of vertical knowledge and horizontal capabilities.

The challenge therefore for universities is how to provide the context and resources for students to develop into T-shaped people, providing a “rich, multifaceted and joined-up portfolio of co-curricular and extra-curricular learning experiences. Such experiences demand at least as much from the students as from academic and other staff, with learning outcomes as co-produced goals.”

PA propose the following 4 core essentials, which I have then mapped against our SG attributes to see how well they match:

PA Core Outcomes Staffordshire Graduate Attributes
Mastery of discipline based knowledge Discipline Expert

  • Have an understanding of the forefront of knowledge in your chosen field


Expertise in applying knowledge and skills Reflective & Critical

  • Have the ability to carry out inquiry-based learning and critical analysis
  • Be a problem solver and creator of opportunities


Growth in personal effectiveness Professional

  • Be prepared to be work-ready and employable, and understand the importance of being enterprising and entrepreneurial


Improved career and life opportunities Global Citizen

  • Have an understanding of global issues – and their place in a globalised economy

Communication & Teamwork

  • Be an effective communicator and presenter – and be able to interact appropriately and confidently with a range of colleagues
  • Have developed the skills of independence of thought and, where appropriate, social interaction through teamwork

Life Long Learner

  • Be technologically, digitally and information literate
  • Be able to apply Staffordshire Graduate attributes to a range of life experiences – to facilitate life-long learning and life-long success




Our own graduate attributes do seem to map well at this point, but there is more work we could possibly do in future to ensure that they become more embedded in the student deal, that the attributes are very clearly related to outcomes and that our students can articulate clearly what the attributes mean for them.

The diagram below from PA shows how they interpret the 4 facets of the proposed student deal.

pa student deal 1

The report goes on to point out that the Student Deal relies on meeting the ambitions of individuals with the resources and personalised support available through institutions. I believe this creates the challenge for  a university such as ours – it’s relatively easy to develop a set of Graduate Attributes, and work out how to assess them, for “traditional” full time undergraduates on 3 year programmes, but as the report highlights:

“A student journey and set of experiences designed for young, full-time, campus-based students is unlikely to work for older, part-time and home or work-based learners. Such students have much clearer views of what they seek from engagement in higher learning, and much stronger expectations of sharing as equals in the design and experience of a fulfilling Student Deal.

Given the limited growth foreseen in the traditional full-time undergraduate cohort (at least for the next few years), this has profound implications for universities’ and other providers’ responses to the emerging buyers’ market for their business”

So since one size will not fit all, universities will have to tailor their student deals to the diversity of markets in which they operate.

“This differentiation must extend to every aspect of the deal, from the design and delivery of learning materials, to the ways in which learners can engage with tutors and peers, to the co- and extra-curricular experiences provided as part of the provider’s offer.”

The fundamentally conservative nature of university operating procedures, and the obsession with 3 year undergraduate programmes does make it difficult to move out of current entrenched silos. PA suggest looking at Business Schools for ideas – they frequently have a more diverse student population. This is definitely the case for us.

The student deal, as proposed, is about a two way commitment between learners and providers – this explicit deal is proposed to ensure that students do take advantage of all opportunities, eg placements, volunteering and other extra curricular activity.

PA conclude with this diagram, showing how they think that a student deal, rather than the existing metrics on student experience, provide better information for all stakeholders, and will enable people to make better choices in future.

pa student deal 2

Overall, a report worth reading – as we move into a market that is going to be ever more stratified, and where differentiation will be increasingly important, finding new ways of expressing what we offer to potential students and other stakeholders will become increasingly important. The criticisms of NSS and its associated metrics, and links to KIS have been well articulated elsewhere. This is a set of ideas that might help to provide more meaningful information and lead to enhanced student outcomes.