Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Margin of Error: Low-Cost Universities Fail to Fill Extra Places

Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Margin of Error: Low-Cost Universities Fail to Fill Extra Places

Article excerpt

Written response to Labour question reveals 'disturbing' shortfall. David Matthews reports.

A key government policy designed to cut tuition fees has been labelled a failure after it emerged that nearly half the places reallocated to lower-cost universities went unfilled.

Data revealing a lack of student demand for low-cost places allocated under the "core-and-margin" system also show that further education colleges had more success than universities in filling the places - running contrary to the predictions of some in higher education.

For 2012-13, higher education providers in England with an average fee of Pounds 7,500 or less were allocated 20,000 places - a so-called "margin" created by top-slicing a portion of places from institutions. The Higher Education Funding Council for England invited bids for the places and distributed them on the basis of "quality, demand and cost".

Of the 20,000 margin places, 7,000 went unfilled, according to government figures released to Shabana Mahmood, Labour's shadow universities and science minister, in answer to a written parliamentary question.

Of the 9,600 places awarded to universities, 4,200 were estimated to have been left unfilled.

Colleges were allocated 10,400 places but failed to fill 2,800.

The margin system was one part of the government's two-pronged plan to introduce competition into higher education. The other was the uncapping of recruitment on students who achieve AAB grades or higher at A level (a threshold that will fall to ABB in 2013-14).

However, AAB has been blamed for unfilled places at Russell Group universities after a drop in the number of students achieving top grades.

Overall, there were 51,000 fewer acceptances at English institutions in the 2012-13 academic year compared with 2011-12, a 13 per cent decline, according to the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service.

Bahram Bekhradnia, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, described the margin figures as "disturbing". The government had "allocated places from universities that might be perfectly popular and in demand to universities and colleges that were not in demand", purely on the basis of price, he said.

A BIS spokeswoman said that the margin provided "a greater number of lower-cost, high-quality places" and stressed that 2012-13 had been "an unusual year, with unfilled places in many parts of the sector". …

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