Devolved governments
Image: Wikimedia commons / Kim Traynor

Devolved governments criticise plan to cap student numbers

University leaders have joined senior government officials from Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland to criticise plans to cap English student numbers at UK universities.

The plans, announced last month, will see a cap on the numbers of English students each university can recruit for the 2020-21 academic year. In the devolved administrations, this equates to 6.5% on top of last year’s intake. 

Universities that exceed the permitted intake could lose up to 15% of their tuition fees in the following year.

The official guidance from the Department of Education claims that such a move is essential amid concerns that more prestigious institutions could recruit increased numbers of domestic students.

Research-based universities are expected to lose millions in income due to a predicted 50% drop in international student numbers following COVID-19 travel restrictions.

The Guardian has reported that some universities are braced for a 50% drop in international enrolments as a result of coronavirus, leaving them financially vulnerable.

A spokesperson told the BBC that the caps were vital to “bring stability” to the sector, preventing the financial collapse of less prestigious universities who might otherwise be left with empty lecture halls.

The UK government’s package of measures for UK universities in early May was England-only in the financial support it offered but it now seems to be UK-wide when it comes to the controls. This is unacceptable

– Alistair Sim

The guidance, published on Monday, also revealed that the planned cap had been extended to universities in the devolved regions, without consultation. Government officials from all three regions have opposed what they see as a “power grab” by Westminster.

The Northern Irish Economy Minister, Diane Dodds, was “shocked and concerned” at what she sees as “interference” from Westminster, and its potential impact on local institutions.

In a letter to UK Universities Minister Michelle Donelan, the Welsh Education Minister Kirsty Williams highlighted her “deep concern” over the plan, which she criticised for showing a lack of respect for principles of devolution.

She also added that the policy was “not in the best interests of the UK as a whole”. She tweeted: “I respect decision making in and for England, just as I do for the other governments in the UK”.

Particular opposition came from Scotland, which recruits around 10% of its students from England. The Scottish higher education minister, Richard Lochhead, labelled the scheme “deeply disappointing”.

He said: “The UK Government should be working with the devolved administrations to support higher education at time of crisis, not imposing, without agreement, targets and sanctions which are aimed at stabilising the English market and are not relevant to Scotland.”

The vice-chancellor of the University of St Andrews, Sally Mapstone, also criticised the universal nature of the scheme, claiming that it was unfair to punish Scottish universities for the actions of a small number of unscrupulous English institutions.

Alastair Sim, director of Universities Scotland, said: “The UK government’s package of measures for UK universities in early May was England-only in the financial support it offered but it now seems to be UK-wide when it comes to the controls. This is unacceptable.”

Despite the criticism, the UK government has announced that it intends to proceed with the plans, claiming that they are aimed at protecting the interests of both students and the higher education sector.

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