TL;DR (Too Long; Didn’t Read): Student Number Controls

“UEL student flats / 2014” by Images George Rex is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

The following post is a short summary of the debate over ‘Student Number Controls’ in Higher Education. Readers can find a longer appendix of articles linked at the bottom of the piece. It is the first in a series of ‘TL;DR’ short explainers that UCU Commons will publish.

*Note: This TL;DR was compiled by Bijan Parsia. All errors or misunderstandings are Bijan’s alone. This TL;DR is not ‘neutral’, but it does aim to inform. It presents a perspective broadly shared by UCU Commons.*

The Background

By 2015, the UK Government largely lifted both global (the total number of home students allowed to attend university) and local (the number of students a particular institution may admit) student caps. That means that many institutions can accept as many home students as they want and that there are more students overall. But in any particular year, obviously, there are only a given number of students who apply to university. So, universities face an annual zero-sum competition for home students. The picture is further complicated by the fact that devolved nations can have their own regimes that interact in complex ways across borders. For example, Scotland had caps for Scottish students (who pay no fees) but not for English students (who do). 

The Problem

Home fees were capped at £9,000 for 2012 and raised to £9,250 for 2017. With inflation, you would need £11,837 today to have the same general purchasing power. With even mildly rising costs, this means institutions need ever more students without raising costs to simply break even. They need to recruit more home students per staff member, or more of the more lucrative overseas students.

Many universities use their prestige and other marketing strategies to aggressively recruit students, both very high fee paying overseas students but also, especially with the pandemic, home students. Without local caps, they are able to scoop up a disproportionate number of students. This has a knock-on effect: other institutions are starved for students, and all of this is made much worse by the A-Levels mismanagement by the Government for 2 years running.

So now we have two problems:

Problem 1: Some institutions have more students than they can handle; staff-student ratios plummet and staff burn out; institutions use cheap temporary and precarious staff to cover the gaps at the expense of continuity and investment (note: precarious staff tend to be even more overworked); the learning experience quality declines.

Problem 2: Other institutions face dire budget shortfalls and have to lay off staff, close programmes, or (eventually) close altogether, which hurts their current and past students and denies valuable options to future students.

Both groups of universities are more likely to pursue problematic policies from the inane (striving to rise in various league tables) to the unwise (huge, risky investment in facilities) to the predatory (unconditional conditional offers, mis-selling, “bringing students back” during a pandemic), in order to address their version of one of these two problems. All Universities are also pressured to primarily sell an “experience” rather than an education. 

This is bad! Most people are worse off. The situation is chaotic for everyone. The system is more vulnerable to shocks. And it creates perverse incentives (like massive building programs to increase marketability) that amplify the chaos.

Why Is This A Hot Topic Right Now?

Dr. Leon Rocha, a member of the UCU Higher Education Committee who’s done a lot of work on student distribution in the UK, proposed a motion. The resolutions were to:

  • request modelling of student number control mechanisms for UK HE to be reported to the next HEC for further action
  • support a robust form of student number controls aligned with UCU’s general opposition to the marketisation of HE
  • campaign for caps aimed at the prevention of institutional failure and departmental closure

This was Dr. Rocha’s 4th attempt to bring this motion forward. The motion had about 5 minutes of debate, and then was voted down on  a tie (13-13 and 7 abstentions).

Regardless of what you think of Student Number Controls per se, it’s clear that we’re facing a crisis in the sector around the distribution of students. It’s an issue that needs UCU engagement. If one isn’t yet convinced that number controls are the right approach or that a campaign is wise, it’s still possible to support the modelling and research.

As it stands, the position of the HEC is that we will do nothing about number controls.

Why Are Some HEC Reps Opposed?

People may have different reasons and I hesitate to speculate there. I’ve linked to some literature in the appendix which provides some reasons to oppose SNC. UCU Left has published a discussion which reflects their position, and there is so far nothing from UCU Agenda / IBL / The Other Faction.

A clear, fundamental issue with controls is that some students will be denied their first choice of university programme. Any campaign for them must wrestle with this fact and it is a challenging messaging problem.

Finally, there are many destabilising factors in current university policy: It’s a key goal of the UK Government! Fundamentally, shrinking investment in universities is going to make the system worse, similarly to how shrinking investment in the NHS strains it. It’s reasonable to wonder if pursuing SNC is the “right” move at this time. Especially when it’s easy to imagine SNC regimes that have bad effects:  e.g.,  non-percentage quotas would restrict the total number of places.


If you want to read more about student number controls, a separate (much longer) appendix can be found here.

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