Universities: Thrive or Survive In Uncapped Competition Era?

Published: 19 September 2014

The likely implications if student number controls are abolished.

Expanding institutions seeking to recover lost ground face a different challenge. They cannot afford to encourage the perception that they are racing to recruit in greater numbers for purely expedient reasons.

In a report out this week, the Higher Education Policy Institute’s (HEPI’s) Director Nick Hillman casts a critical eye over the Government’s move to abolish student number controls for English universities. As the former Special Adviser to David Willetts, until recently Universities Minister, Hillman has inevitably attracted press attention for his thoughts about the haste with which the policy was introduced.

In actuality, Hillman’s critiques are more than measured. He goes out of his way to extol the virtues of uncapped student numbers, remarking only that there are issues needing to be resolved rather than principles that need abandoning. The hyperbole of the coverage is a far cry from the constructive insights in the report itself.

Some of the most interesting of Hillman’s insights are his thoughts on the ways in which individual universities will respond to the newly deregulated market for undergraduates. He suggests a new level of diversity in the HE sector, with institutions minded to dramatically expand student numbers contrasted by those seeking to maintain their existing scale. Both routes pose some interesting reputation management challenges.

Hillman suggests that the expansively minded institutions will be drawn from the ranks of smaller institutions, alternative providers and those that have lost out under the current regime of places being uncapped only for students with the highest A-Level grades on entry.

For the first two of these the challenge will be to signal a sense of ambition. Smaller, and newer, institutions need to convey a sense of positive momentum. They need to tell prospective students a story about how they will be part of an institution on the rise, with stature growing in line with the increasing scale. At the same time, they need to underpin this with subtle, but meaningful, reassurances that distinctive qualities will not be sacrificed on the altar of growth.

Expanding institutions seeking to recover lost ground face a different challenge. They cannot afford to encourage the perception that they are racing to recruit in greater numbers for purely expedient reasons. Any sense that they are accepting all comers, getting more students through the door purely to increase fee income, would be detrimental to a reputation for academic quality. They instead need to think carefully about what their particular qualities are as an institution and ensure that the students likely to value these qualities see them as the most obvious option.

For instance, an institution with strong course offerings and employer links with a particular set of industries needs to make sure that all students with an interest in those industries feel compelled to study there; rather than try to cram in as many students as possible irrespective of what they are looking for.

Institutions not looking to expand face reputational challenges of their own. In many cases they will need to ward off the threat of growing institutions looking to attract students they could otherwise have taken for granted. To do so they will need to convey a sense of permanent excellence, rock solid stability that is immune to the winds of change blowing all around them. For the oldest institution this will be a case of consistently articulating the value of their long heritage, telling the story of how they are intrinsically woven into the history (and future) of the country.

Others, particularly those institutions founded in the 1960’s, will need to define and convey their own identifiers of significance, reflecting their importance to modern Britain. There are also a host of post-92 institutions that have thrived over recent years that will need to guard against any feeling that their success is transitory.

As Nick Hillman notes in his report, the announcement that student numbers would be uncapped caught the HE sector by surprise. Individual institutions need to plan their reputation management strategies carefully to ensure they are more prepared for the implications of the move.

Mark Fuller
Associate Director

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