This is a hypothesis, which I hope will be shown to be wrong, but I worry about it.
The movement from an ‘elite’ to a ‘mass’ higher education system was observed by Martin Trow. Looking at growth in institutions and numbers of students at them during the twentieth century there are obvious waves of growth, punctuated by some declines (neither the world wars or the depressed economic situations of the 1920s and 1930s were good for growth in HE). After 1950 there was been a period of continual growth, surviving even the best attempts of governments to muck this up.
The period of growth in the 1950s is important, as the conditions then set up many of the systems that we have now in the UK. The civic universities had struggled before and during the war, but in the 1950s the UGC cemented its role in planning for growth. University Colleges were finally given their own charters, and the UGC funded growth at all the universities on its list. Pressure to get in was, however, unprecedented. To use the contemporary notion, Universities moved from ‘recruiting’ to ‘selecting’ for courses. In order to get their students into universities, schools taught more to university entrance requirements across more of their sixth form students. Universities demanded higher entrance requirements. It was this era of university expansion that Kingsley Amis took objection to in both his novel Lucky Jim and his article for Encounter where he claimed more will mean worse.
The pressure on government was clear; students had completed their school education and could not get places at universities of their choice. Although there were other avenues to higher education, the 1930s had cemented the view that the residential university life was the best option. While the UGC paid for new universities to be built, the Robbins Committee was a response to the pressures of expansion, also looking at higher education in colleges of education and technology.
In a way, the period of reform, with tuition fees providing the bulk of university teaching funding, and culminating in the removal of the numbers cap, is another attempt to cope with expansion. Although numbers in higher education had expanded, there was a large number leaving the UCAS system each year without a place – this appeared to be students who were well qualified, and the supposition was that they had not found a place at a university of their choice. Government attempts to expand numbers at the top-end met with limited success (the AAB+ and ABB+ years) and only now does it appear that universities at the top end of the reputational range are expanding to meet demand.
Analysis by the Times Higher Education shows broad movements in student numbers but at the same time there are other data that show that the proportion of poor students at ‘leading’ universities has fallen. Just possibly, what is happening could be that the mobile middle classes are moving to take up the new places at ‘better’ universities. If that is happening, then the diversity of individual institutions will change. Just as with schools; if the better-prepared students all go off to some universities, there will be a change in overall performance (handy for the TEF if your retention, good completion and graduate outcomes all go up). Although the ABB+ scheme has stopped, universities are still running ‘excellence’ scholarships to attract the best-prepared students (while grants are removed from the poorest).
We could see more of a divide; mobile and well-prepared students continuing to choose from a national pool of universities, perhaps attracted by competitive behaviour in terms of scholarships and the facilities race, and less mobile students having less choice. Some of the universities seeing falling numbers have traditionally been stronger in recruiting local students and at the same time reflecting the diversity of their communities. If those universities struggle (including ‘market exit’?) then the government will have achieved the most extraordinary unintended policy consequence ever – the reduction of opportunity for the very students they are exhorting the sector to support.
We’ve not seen much in terms of impact assessment from government on its changes to HE – but I would hope that BIS are actively working on this one.