Fact check: @shabanamahmood on UCAS figures

Just a quick update from me based on the data I shared last night.

This morning I read a comment from the shadow higher education minister, Shabana Mahmood MP, which said:

“UCAS reports wild and dangerous swings – with some huge losers and some winners – but the variations show severe volatility in the system that should be a concern for everyone. With some universities reporting drops larger than 40% in one year, the government must now answer for the damage it has done to those universities that have suffered as a consequence of their reforms and decision to raise fees to £9,000.”

And I agree – the government should be held to account for the damage it has done to the English Higher Education sector. But I disagree about the interpretation of the data.

Here then, are the top and bottom ten changes in recruitment between 2011-12 and (for comparison) 2010-2011:

Percentage change in acceptances

% change in number of acceptances between two cycles, where acceptances >1000
Prepared by http://followersoftheapocalyp.se
2010-2011 % 2011-2012 %
London Metropolitan University 50.55% University of Bristol 24.49%
University of Bolton 19.10% University College London (University of London) 19.47%
University of Hertfordshire 17.23% King’s College London (University of London) 10.96%
Canterbury Christ Church University 14.53% London School of Economics and Political Science (University of London) 10.79%
Southampton Solent University 14.53% York St John University 9.33%
Anglia Ruskin University 12.86% University of Winchester 8.66%
Buckinghamshire New University 12.08% Aston University, Birmingham 7.21%
University of Bedfordshire 11.68% Anglia Ruskin University 7.05%
Leeds Metropolitan University 11.62% Newcastle University 6.91%
De Montfort University 10.82% Coventry University 6.17%
[…] […]
Aston University, Birmingham -10.10% University of Surrey -17.80%
Roehampton University -10.68% The University of Salford -19.52%
London South Bank University -10.81% University of Cumbria -20.32%
University College London (University of London) -10.83% The University of Bradford -20.54%
Oxford Brookes University -12.15% University of East London -22.74%
University of Brighton -13.61% Leeds Metropolitan University -25.35%
University of Greenwich -16.35% University of Greenwich -25.69%
Coventry University -20.21% University Campus Suffolk -25.74%
Plymouth University -24.31% University of Bolton -29.00%
University of Surrey -24.43% London Metropolitan University -55.46%

So, the only institution that saw a “drop larger than 40%” was London Metropolitan, who recorded the sectors largest growth in between the previous two cycles (and have had a whole world of troubles from the UKBA since). Other than that, the changes do not seem especially volatile this time round when compared to the last. The average percentage change in (large) institutional acceptances between 2010 and 2011 was a 0.98% rise, between 2011-12 it was a 6.2% drop.

If I was paid by political parties to do higher education policy analysis, which I am not, I would go on to look at a longer time period to see what the general recruitment volatility was.  It would be fairly interesting.

To me, there are two real stories here:

  1. The changes to university funding, brought about to “improve” student choice of institutions, has largely failed to have an appreciable impact. Even despite the changes, students are choosing the institutions they would have chosen anyway, based on individual courses or a nice city to live in for three years.
  2. There is a weak trend of growth moving towards institutions that get piles of selective research funding, and away from those who are not. This might be significant, but reasons why it may not be include the demographic and other pressures on recruitment across the whole sector – with students who do not get in to their choice of local or specialist university unlikely to go somewhere else. And, of course, the fact that growth for traditionally selective universities (taking AAB students or above) is not constrained (by deliberate design), whereas other growth is.

The new system is a very heavily managed market, possibly more managed than the system it replaced. The difference is that a change in the profile of the sector is the intended outcome, not the stability of the sector. A new sector is being designed, rather than being allowed to happen, and the story that I think the opposition should be pushing is not why there is so much volatility, rather why – given the huge expense of the new system – there is so little.

The clue is the continued absence of a BIS statement on the UCAS figures. What can they say? Not stable enough for those who want to conserve the system we have, not radical enough for the reformers. So the silence of BIS represents the lack of a convincing rationale why they are spending an extra £10bn of taxpayers money this parliament for no appreciable difference other than an overall drop in recruitment.

Oh BIS, there ain’t no pleasing you.

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