On Why UK Higher Education Urgently Requires Student Number Controls

David Hitchcock
10 min readSep 17, 2021
Reporting from the BBC, September 15th, 2021.

I have been trying, together with some elected union representatives, to get some form of motion supporting the reinstatement of student numbers controls passed for the better part of two and a half years. I have mainly done this from a position outside of any formal union structures, but I see it as one of the single best ways to help sustain universities like the one I work at, and to produce a more equitable and humane university experience for both students and staff. I can see the effects that anaemic, fluctuating recruitment has had on my place of work: the constant redundancies, the lack of hiring to replace any lost colleagues, the never-ending pressure to cut costs, teach another seminar, and find ways to retain and recruit students at all costs.

This entire time, a range of individuals elected to represent people teaching either disastrously enormous cohorts, or watching their programmes shrink into oblivion, have reliably come out and voted this measure down or spoken out against it on social media. Every single time, their reasoning has been, at best, a form of whataboutery about some purer fight against marketisation which is prevented by pursuing number controls, or an argument vaguely about preserving ‘freedom of choice’ for students in an abstract marketplace of degrees; a language that embraces consumerism in education in a way that I am astonished to hear coming out of the mouths of avowed and very publicly engaged leftists. Soft forms of number control already exist in primary and secondary education, in the form of catchment areas for public schools. This is completely uncontroversial, why are we pretending the same considerations do not apply elsewhere?

People far more prominent than I have endorsed the idea of numbers controls, including the General Secretary of the UCU union. It should not be a niche idea that controlling the number of students attending a given programme is an effective way to give all students who attend university more access to their lecturers, better access to important services, and a better staff to student ratio. This is because it is wrong to understand student places as a ‘market’.

We must understand universities as ecosystems — as communities — instead.

What I want to do below is lay out why everyone working in Higher Education and everyone who cares about universities should push urgently for the reinstatement of some form of Student Number Controls passed by legislation and enforced by the Office For Students, for some way to cap places using a percentage distribution not just on specific courses and degrees (medicine and so on already do this), but generally, in a manner that works to prevent some of the greediest universities from stockpiling students by paying them to defer their studies, and by packing students in to enormous cohorts taught by precarious staff working in terrible conditions.

The withdrawal of any form of student number controls in 2015/6 was one of the most disastrous higher education policy decisions taken by Government in the last three decades. Whether it is intentional or not, this withdrawal is slowly destroying the UK university sector, producing enormous inefficiencies, perverse and predatory recruitment practices, driving down the quality of teaching and the accessibility of academics to their students, and encouraging universities to behave as if they merely sell a product rather than nurture an ecosystem of learning experiences.

We can see an advanced form of what a ‘free market’ in student places does to university education by looking at the state of both US and Australian universities, where the aggressive financialization of college sport, prestige degrees like the MBA, and corporate boards of governors have smashed apart learning communities, driven thousands of academics into redundancy and precarity, and now threaten the existence of entire institutions. Is that what we want?

We can look at the HE policy commentary at the time to see early misgivings about the removal of controls. Specialists in education policy pointed out from the beginning that ‘market making’ in the arena of university places and fees was a deeply flawed exercise, which was rendered visibly obvious when literally every institution in the country charged the same amount of tuition fees after a year or two under the new regime.

We can also see a lurch back towards controlling ‘market forces’ in this arena when disaster threatens, as for instance in this past year, when the Johnson government briefly flirted with the idea of temporary number controls in order to protect institutions across the country from the effects of the pandemic. They were convinced, by heavy lobbying from the Russell Group and other prominent interest groups serving select universities, to abandon this bulwark.

So what is stopping us, as workers in universities or as citizens concerned with the fate of our higher education system, from campaigning to get some sort of numbers controls reinstated? I will break down what, from my perspective, the main barriers appear to be: first, there are barriers in the main union, UCU. Second, there are barriers in the wider cultural commonplaces surrounding what university is for, and third there are real challenges to designing a good system of controls which does not overly penalise students, but which does lay down ground rules that institutions must obey.

1. In the Union:

The University and College Union, UCU, has many of its national campaigning strategies, priorities, and policies determined for it by members elected to several important committees: the National Executive Committee (NEC), and the Further and Higher Education Committees respectively (FEC and HEC). These committees have never passed a motion supporting a return to student number controls, despite such motions being brought before the committees in various forms, with amendments based on constructive critique and so on, at least 4 times. Interestingly, one of the former elected members who has since been the most public supporter of some sort of cap, started out understandably sceptical about the idea, at least, if government were allowed to simply ‘bake in’ existing inequalities. Scepticism of number controls is a good thing, any system looking to regulate the distribution of such a prominent social good (university places) must be designed with the utmost care. But regardless, the union at present still has no official position on numbers controls, for or against, and no rationale for why in either case.

2. In The Wider HE Policy Landscape:

Here I have less of a sense of where (or why, though I can assume money is involved) various prominent publications or thinktank outlets stand on the issue of numbers controls. My general sense is that most commentators approve, in theory, of the general idea that students should be able to choose where to go if they meet the requirements of going. Bijan Parsia helpfully put together a long annotated bibliography of work on numbers controls, and you can find it, and his reflections, here.

3. The Challenge of Designing a Good System:

People are correct to point out that simple, hard caps that are not alive to shifting patterns in student choices or in the provision of staffing currently would be a disaster. But I would be correct to point out that no one seems to be asking for such a thing, certainly I am not.

Here I want to start with four questions that the current University Secretary of Sheffield, Tony Strike, asked about a year ago regarding number controls. Strike has extensive experience managing student intake during the years where controls were in force, and has raised four important points about how any system of controls should be designed or operated. These are:

  1. “How will student number control protect students from poor market practices?”
  2. “How will any number control system ensure that student’s choices are respected and that they are not simply turned away from their first choice institution despite having achieved the grades to study there?”
  3. “What mechanism in the controls will ensure that the sector remains vibrant and institutional growth remains possible?”
  4. “What is going to be the fair basis for any supply side control?”

I will take these questions one at a time.

  1. The Market: Poor market practices already exist everywhere in the current landscape of university admissions. Large institutions pay students to defer, rope students into large programmes and then house them hours away during their first year (see the first image in this story), and make aggressive unconditional offers that force applicants to say yes or no very quickly in order to secure a place, which is a well-understood form of predatory marketing psychology. So first of all we ought to question the framing of the question: does the current system (lack thereof, really) protect students from any of these practices, or from the hidden problems once they actually get to university, like never seeing their lecturers, being taught by an endless series of doubtless talented but very precarious teaching fellows, or being unable to access important services they need due to huge demand?
  2. Respecting Choice: By definition, even a dynamic percent-based controls or quotas system would produce a situation where not all students are given a place at their first choice of university. But that is already true anyways, even in our current wild west system. And few people seem willing to talk about the other side of this question, which is what happens when students quite literally all choose to go to a handful of universities, and nowhere else? Is that ‘the market choosing winners’, does that sort of logic even apply to education? I cannot see how such a characterisation is accurate. Again, to emphasise: choice is already not guaranteed in specific cases, such as medicine, nursing, virtually any professionally accredited degree, and so on. There, places are limited based on the quality of the service (i.e. the educational experience) then provided. What is so different about other subjects? So the answer to this question is more about how students understand what going to university ought to mean, and what they deserve for their fees once they are there.
  3. Vibrant Growth: Much like the increasingly toxic growth/de-growth arguments elsewhere in world affairs, it seems important to ask first: why is it necessary for some universities to grow, but not others? Remember, student admissions every year is a zero sum game. There are X students, they choose to go Y places, producing Z distribution of the available pool of tuition fees. The orthodoxy that universities must grow is contradictory: inflation chews away at the value of funding every year, so growing in this terrible marketplace often means simply treading water in finance terms. And importantly, a university serves a community that fluctuates in size and shape, as communities are wont to do. It is faintly absurd to suggest that none of the consequences of a single university exceeding their targets by 45% are that institution’s fault. Of course they are: and they include rent rates in the wider community, housing prices, strains on local services and healthcare, and so on. Students are people, living in place, not customers, buying a product. The issue of inflation is not the fault of universities, it is the fault of government, which found a way to aggressively starve the sector of funding by making institutions fight over increasingly meagre allocations of resource, year on year, and spend more and more to win out. But universities must take responsibility for that second contradiction, where their recruitment practices drastically affect life in and around their campuses.
  4. Fairness: Now, this is a good question. Here is what Strike wrote:

Do universities bid for places? Alternatively, is it to be formulaic? Applications per place is a measure of latent demand and might make a good leading indicator. Students put their choices into UCAS and could do so in priority order, so places follow applicant intentions subject to an overall limit. It is not simple.

The worst solution would be to use last year’s intake or an average, say, of the previous three years of intakes, which would be to drive forward guided by what you can see by looking in the rear view mirror, removing any idea of a dynamic market or choice.

I’m not a statistician, but I do feel like the modelling done to allocate places to universities between 2009 and 2015 could be resurrected and looked at closely. This is predicated on a government that is willing to be involved though in regulating the sector, rather than simply reprimanding it. Clearly Tony Strike has experience working with those models and spreadsheets and I’ve no doubt that a wealth of expertise is available in the sector to assist in designing a proper, smooth, and proportionate distributional mechanism that was tied to multiple important indexes, for instance we could combine priority order UCAS applications (like preferential voting systems) with a rolling average of both student and staff numbers at institutions to arrive at an accurate picture each year, in advance, of student demand and institutional capacity. If this was done earlier in the cycle, universities would then be in a position to know how many students they could responsibly teach and accommodate, and students would be ready to accept from a small field of institutions in order to attend university. There is no need at any point for a total cap on the number of places, only for a means of distributing the students who want to attend in a way that sustains a healthy ecosystem of higher education and a good learning environment for all.

If you got this far and were an opponent of student number controls, I hope this post has disabused any notion that myself or any of the other supporters of the idea are interested in withholding education from students or in shrinking the sector. I want to teach anyone who wants to be taught, as should any university lecturer. But I also want to see a better system of Higher Education in this country that does much less to incentivise the cult of students as consumers and much more to nurture good learning environments in a systematic way across the entire landscape of higher education. Controlling the flow of students in some way quite obviously, to me, is part of properly regulating the sector, just like controlling the number of people in a swimming pool directly affects the experience for swimmers. We use this sort of traffic logic in all sorts of important contexts, why are we so violently against its reintroduction in universities?

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David Hitchcock

Historian of poverty, utopia, and colonialism. Author of Vagrancy in English Culture and Society, 1650-1750 and co-editor of the Routledge History of Poverty.