Universities must now battle each other to attract students. How is that changing them?
THE style is that of every other vlogger: breathless narration, rapid cuts between scenes, relentless cheer. “I really like visiting other universities, because I like to imagine myself in a different life where I’d gone to this one, instead of the one I ended up in,” explains Evan Edinger into a hand-held camera, before attending an open day at SOAS, a London university. Another reason, presumably, is because SOAS had paid him to do so. One hint is a small hashtag (“#ad”) at the end of his video’s title.
University marketing, once restricted to the three months before applications are due, is now constant, says Rachel Killian of Penna, a marketing firm. That reflects a broad shift in higher education as a result of reforms introduced by the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government. In 2012 it trebled the tuition fees universities could charge, up to a maximum of £9,000 ($14,000). Then in 2014 it lifted a cap on student numbers which had controlled government spending by restricting how many places institutions could offer. Students once competed for a limited number of spaces; now universities do battle to enroll as many scholars as they can.
That is because they must attract students or cut costs. As most undergraduates pay for their studies with loans provided by the state, nearly half of universities’ income comes from them, compared with a quarter in 2005-06. And, as restrictions on recruitment have been relaxed, numbers can now fluctuate wildly. This year the total accepting the offer of a place at Southampton Solent University fell by 18%. The government hoped competition would allow the undergraduate population to continue to grow, thus widening access to higher education, and would raise teaching standards, recalls David Willetts, the universities minister from 2010 to 2014.
To some extent, those hopes have been realised. Fees at public universities in Britain are the highest in the OECD, a group of mostly rich countries, but the number of poor students has continued to rise. In 2010, 14% of children from the most deprived areas went to university; in 2016, 20% did. In theory fees might be £9,000 a year, says Seamus, a student at the University of the West of England (UWE) in Bristol. But “the money’s not real. It doesn’t exist until you’re making enough to pay it back.” Numbers of part-time and mature students, who receive less support, have slumped, however, prompting fears about the “homogenisation” of the route Britons take through higher education.
Disadvantaged students have so far poured into low-ranking universities. But they may soon gain access to the best ones. Since 2014, the numbers accepted by English members of the Russell Group of top universities have grown by about 6%. As Nick Hillman of the Higher Education Policy Institute, a think-tank, notes, this means that poor students no longer have to oust their middle-class peers to gain entry. All students are now more likely to win a place at their first-choice institutions, too.
The possibility of expansion has prompted a building boom. Much of the UWE campus is a building site. Growing universities erect glitzy libraries, housing blocks and research facilities to accommodate new students; shrinking ones do so in an effort to turn the tide. According to Barbour ABI, a consultancy, universities spent £2.4bn on construction in 2013, 43% more than in 2012, and have continued to spend at that level in the years since.
Better facilities are a boon for students. Some 87% say they are satisfied with their libraries, compared with 78% in 2010, according to the National Student Survey, an official poll. One private London dorm comes with a cinema room and concierge (rent: £399 a week). But Shelly Asquith of the National Union of Students cautions that poor students are sometimes priced out of expensive university halls and thus end up living in the cheapest private places available, which hinders student mixing.
Another lure is the promise of a path to a good job. At open days prospective students are still mainly interested in courses and living arrangements, but their parents increasingly care about employment. All universities now have in place strategies to boost graduate employment, notes Kathleen Henehan of the Resolution Foundation, a think-tank. About half of the courses at UWE have a vocational element, says Steven West, its vice-chancellor, which is not unusual for similar universities. On one of its business degrees students must start a firm as part of their studies (one has set up a record label, another a skiwear company).
Some fret that too many students are still exposed to lacklustre teaching. Crowded lecture halls and insufficient time with professors are common complaints. Jo Johnson, the universities minister, has some sympathy: he has said that too many students are exposed to “mediocre teaching”. The government hopes its new “Teaching Excellence Framework” will prod universities to pay as much attention to the quality of instruction as to research.
Survival of the fittest
Others worry that the competition will prove too intense. A report last year by the Higher Education Funding Council for England, a grant-giving agency, warned of declining cash levels and an increase in borrowing by universities that could prove unsustainable. Few policy wonks are willing to predict what the government would do if a university went bankrupt. Many institutions that are struggling under the new regime are in the parts of the country that Theresa May, the prime minister, has promised to reinvigorate, notes Andy Westwood of Manchester University. They are more likely to be attended by poor, local students. Mrs May will have to decide if their decline is a price worth paying for more competitive universities.