Mohammed Abdel-Haq is Executive Director of the Centre for Opposition Studies and Assistant Vice Chancellor for Postgraduate Developments at the University of Bolton. He writes in a personal capacity.
The current coronavirus situation means that British universities are facing a colossal challenge.
This could be existential to some given the unprecedented challenges they already face, such as regulation, competition and financing in an ever-changing world.
British Universities have gone into a state of lockdown, with teaching suddenly moving online.
Campuses are bereft of students and teachers alike, with only the bare minimum of staff on hand, all of which took place at breakneck speed.
As a result, the current business model of British universities has been challenged in the most brutal way.
The Guardian recently reported that British universities now face a black hole of hundreds of millions of pounds in tuition fees as international students are forced to cancel or postpone enrolments because of the coronavirus.
Consequently, the leading players are likely to be found hoovering up domestic students to fill their courses, leaving less prestigious institutions with empty classes. Hence, I welcome the restoration of the student cap per university which the government is intending to introduce, which will help to spread the pain of the shock.
What else could be done to help?
For one, the Government should ensure that the non-Russell Group universities will not be penalised as a result of the Coronavirus in a way that makes their business model unviable.
This extraordinary event should not be allowed to bring about a world in which only universities in the Russell Group will survive.
I am a strong believer of the role and the contribution Russell Group universities are playing, and I believe there are indeed ways in which other institutions, alongside the whole sector, need to up their game to remain competitive.
But I also believe that all universities play a vital role in enhancing their local economies and are part of the social fabric of their communities, helping to promote social mobility and justice.
In Jonathan R. Cole’s book The Great American University, he quoted Abraham Flexner:
“A university, like all other human institutions, like the church, governments and philanthropic organisations, is not outside, but inside the general social fabric of a given era. It is an expression of an age, as well as an influence operating upon both present and future.”
While the national decision to cancel A-Level exams and award students grades on overall performance may appear not to be prejudicing any individual student, it will inadvertently cause an unprecedented, unintentional consequence.
If all students are to pass according to their pre-existing grades this will mean grade inflation. In this case too many students will be qualified for admissions to Russell Group universities. If one of those universities now makes 4,000 conditional offers where in normal circumstances only 3000 would achieve the minimum threshold, what is the impact?
Recruiting universities should be worried by this prospect, because fewer students will then come to them through clearing. Even if student quotas for each university are introduced (student number controls), the universities will be contractually bound to give a place to a student if they meet the offer grades.
Given the interest of the Prime Minister to “level up” Britain, and with the Secretary of State for Education Gavin Williamson himself a graduate of Bradford University, I am hopeful that the non-Russell Group universities will find themselves with a government that will take their interests very seriously.
How might the situation be managed? Some suggestions might include:
- The introduction of post-qualification admissions for Autumn 2020 linked to student number controls as an exceptional measure.
- The Office for Students should be given powers to cancel all existing offers through UCAS and let universities make new offers within their quota after A-Level results day. This would result in a sort of ‘mega clearing’.
- To accommodate this it might be necessary for the Secretary of State for Education to defer the start of the university academic year to 1st November 2020 for all institutions to give the national virus situation time to stabilise and this gives time for the system to sort out admissions (a realistic proposal given the long period of disruption caused by the lockdown).
This might seem to be a dramatic set of proposals, but as we are in uncharted territory, they are needed to avoid serious damage to the sector.
Whatever action the government takes, no decision should be taken without strong representation from all universities.