Secret Lecturer: University unconditional offers pose severe threat to college funding
Published: 18 Sep 2018
The government wants even more bang for its buck this year, leaving FE colleges facing a double dilemma.
First, we are being asked to take on more students than 2017-18 – my college’s extra quota is 300 – despite the government saying, sorry, there’s no more cash.
Second, the key HE income stream that many colleges have built up is under threat. Demographically, numbers of 18-year-olds are falling; universities are now allowed to accept as many students as they can take – and thus earn more from more bums on seats in an increasingly competitive market. They are getting greedy, literally at FE’s expense.
At £9,250 – the maximum tuition fee per undergrad per year – they have this year offered an unprecedented number of unconditional places and/or very low grades to 18-year-olds, many of whom would never have achieved the A-level/BTEC equivalent grades that have been traditionally demanded.
College HE funding takes a hit
The knock-on effect has been dramatic. One school in northern England saw a 64% drop in A-level passes year on year, due to students being offered unconditional places as early as January in their final school year. The students stopped turning up to lessons, let alone exams. Why bother completing A-levels and BTEC qualifications, they argue, when a place at university is guaranteed?
The fact that universities are accepting lower grades has, in one brief move, cut a swathe through the number of £6,000 tuition fees anticipated and relied on by colleges to augment their income, leaving a number of providers with a financial shortfall and the prospect of dropping HE courses altogether.
Heads need to be knocked together to avoid a repeat next year which could have a devastating effect on many colleges, including mine which has seen a fall in its overall surplus of money that would normally be used to improve provision and buy equipment. Lecturer jobs have not been affected so far. But who knows what the future holds. Less funding means cuts may have to be made.
Fortunately, last month saw the education secretary Damian Hinds calling for a curb on universities offering unconditional places – a practice that has mushroomed. The latest UCAS figures reveal that last year 18-year- olds in England, Wales and Northern Ireland were offered around 68,000 unconditional places compared with under 3,000 just five years ago.
The Department for Education told ITN’s website that it is expecting the Office for Students to carefully monitor the trend and “to take appropriate action”.
Don’t forget – every business has training needs
One fairly new revenue stream, which provides a ray of sunshine at a difficult time financially, is the growing demand by local businesses for colleges to put on bespoke staff training courses. It’s proving quite lucrative for my college and keeps our own teaching staff busy. It’s one to check out in your area!
Having said that, we have to keep up pressure to return to the level of acceptable university entry standards as rapidly as possible, now that colleges like mine are having to do their funding sums more than ever.
Before the government removed the cap on student numbers three years ago, universities had to be content with a smaller slice of the funding cake, which meant FE providers had a better chance of recruiting more students who attracted greater funding. If HE teaching is to survive in FE, we need to stop the greed and get back to this much fairer system.