Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Haphazard Cap Hazards: Opinion

Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Haphazard Cap Hazards: Opinion

Article excerpt

Introducing private number controls now when they are set to be abolished by 2015-16 is farcical, says Aldwyn Cooper.

In their 2011 White Paper Students at the Heart of the System, Vince Cable and David Willetts stated: "We must move away from a world in which the number of students allocated to each university is determined in Whitehall." At the same time, ministers committed to supporting a more diverse sector, including alternative providers.

The announcement in last week's Autumn Statement that the limits on the number of students English institutions are allowed to recruit will be abolished by 2015-16 is therefore a logical outcome of the government's policy. In normal circumstances, the sector should welcome the move with open arms. Of course the state shouldn't put a cap on aspiration through arbitrary controls.

But Chancellor George Osborne spoke only a few days after the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills had informed private providers - without warning and well into the 2013-14 academic year - that they faced a retrospective cap on student numbers for the year. That new students have already enrolled, progression students are in place, recruitment plans are established for semester two and commitments have been made to students, staff and suppliers cut no ice.

Even worse, Student Finance England suspended all elements of funding to European Union students at alternative providers. This action is discriminatory, a reversal of previous government policy and is questionable under EU law.

The steps being taken against the alternative sector to rein in costs speak more of panic than of carefully crafted policy, and while they may only be short-term measures, they could cause long-term damage to the development of more diverse higher education provision.

The measures were a reflex response to the government's failure to monitor potential changes in demand for funding. After it became difficult to sponsor international students, some private providers focused on attracting EU students to study for higher national diplomas and certificates. But this threat was obvious two years ago and action should have been taken then.

It is not reasonable to solve a problem - and one that is not of their making - by penalising well-managed institutions that support government policy and offer an excellent student experience, value for money and high levels of graduate employability. …

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