Top universities and cut-price courses are winners in shake-up

Middle-ground institutions fear squeeze in 'bidding war' for students

Universities will be able to enter a bidding war for high-flying A-level students under the most radical reform of higher education for decades.

The plans, published in a Government White Paper yesterday, also give the green light to more private firms to set up degree courses.

The country's most sought-after universities will be allowed to expand their student numbers to take in as many youngsters as they want who have two A-grades and a B-grade at A-level. In all, 65,000 places – about 18 per cent of the annual undergraduate intake – will be allocated this way. Universities offering cheaper degree courses – charging less than £7,500 a year – will also be able to recruit extra students, up to a maximum of 20,000 a year.

The universities minister David Willetts made it plain yesterday that the moves – which mean one in four places at English universities will be open bids next year – were the first step towards an even more radical shake-up of the university system. But student leaders warned it would lead to university closures particularly among the "squeezed middle" universities which cannot benefit from the deal on offer to cheap providers, and who are unable to attract many high-flyers.

Mr Willetts conceded that it could lead to the closures of less popular courses at middle-ranking universities, adding: "No government has ever said they will guarantee every institution." He said he doubted whether any institutions would have to fold as a result of the measures.

The carrot offered to universities charging below £7,500 a year is seen as a way of putting pressure on institutions to cut their fees. The White Paper says it may have to rethink the definition of a "university" and even talks of providers being able to offer degrees without providing any teaching for them. Other measures include:

* giving students more information about what subjects previously successful applicants have studied, and their post-degree employment status;

* allowing them to rate their lecturers as part of a student's charter;

* allowing them to complain to trigger inspections of their course;

* strengthening Offa, the admissions watchdog, by giving it more staff

* allowing employers and charities to sponsor university places above government limits, including the full cost of tuition fees;

* allowing students to pay off their loans early if they have the cash.

Student leaders have reacted angrily to the plans. David Barclay, president of Oxford University Student Union, said: "Dressing up the White Paper with the language of student choice is like putting lipstick on a pig: it cannot mask the fundamental destruction of our universities. Sky-high fees and a marketised system will only serve to hurt social mobility and cause courses and institutions to close across the country."

Q&A: What bidding wars mean for students

Q The Government has billed its plans as "putting students at the heart of higher education". Do they?

A It gives them powers they have never had before: the right to know which A-level subjects they should take to succeed in applying to university. Expect fewer pupils to take media studies as a result.

Then there's the students' charter – which should guarantee them the right to quality teaching and the right to complain and trigger an inspection of the university if they feel they are not getting it.

All these things are fairly uncontroversial but the point is many felt they did not have these rights before.

Q What about opening up competition for university places, allowing universities to expand if they take in more high-flying students? Surely that will give them more of a chance of getting into their number-one university?

A You would think so. You have to remember, though, that universities such as Cambridge (pictured above right) are reluctant to expand their student numbers. So it will not be a case of "I've got two As and a B – therefore I should be able to get into the university of my choice".

Q How did the universities respond to all this?

A Interestingly. Vice-chancellors of most hues (Russell Group, red-brick universities, former polytechnics) were quite cautious in their reaction yesterday. I thought a telling point, though, was made by Dr Wendy Piatt, director-general of the Russell Group, when she warned the plan might have "unintended consequences". She cited the instance of a university running courses in the strategic subjects such as science and modern languages that the Government is so anxious to protect being forced to close them because not enough students were opting for them. It's not only the elite universities that supply top-quality courses in these subjects.

Q How about private-sector provision? Are we going to see loads and loads of universities springing up all over the place in the image of the New College of the Humanities championed by Professor A C Grayling and charging students £18,000 a year?

A I would think not. The private providers are more likely to be offering courses at the lower end of the market – specialising in particular vocational subjects, possibly through providing distance-learning courses. A word of caution here is added by Labour. If the open-door policy towards them ends up with our system replicating that on offer in the United States, you could be in for higher drop-out rates. Research shows that 57 per cent of students enrolling with "for profit" private providers (not the Ivy League universities) drop out.

Q What is the thinking behind allowing those offering cheaper courses to expand their intake?

A David Willetts (pictured below left) has always said he would like to see more students being able to sign on at their local further-education college and be able to access courses devised by leading universities. Most of the colleges offering higher-education courses are charging less than £6,000 a year so there could be scope for expansion.

Of course, it is also no secret that ministers believe that too many universities opted for the maximum £9,000 charge and both they and vice-chancellors expect some to have to lower their fees after the first year because they have failed to attract enough students. This proposal could be seen as a sweetener towards encouraging a few to drop their prices.

Q Have students welcomed the increased powers they will have as a result of these proposals?

A Actually, the comments made by students' leaders have probably been among the most vitriolic reactions to the White Paper. At the heart of their responses is a feeling that the Government has offered them only more "student power" as a result of proposing to increase fees to up to £9,000 a year from next September. As David Barclay, president of the Oxford University Student Union, put it: "Dressing up the White Paper with the language of student choice is like putting lipstick on a pig – it cannot mask the fundamental destruction of our universities."

Q It has been billed as the most radical reform to higher education for decades. Is it?

A It probably is the most wide-ranging set of proposals since the Robbins Report in the 1960s paved the way for the expansion of the system. The only measure that could rival it, I suspect, is the decision to allow the polytechnics to have university status – granted surprisingly under the Thatcher era. As to whether it lives up to its billing, the jury – I suppose – is still out. David Willetts was stressing yesterday that this was only the first step along the road to a more competitive university system. If the number of places open for bids expands substantially, then that would truly warrant the billing. Whether it does so or not, I suspect, depends on whether there are those "unintended consequences" Dr Piatt talked about.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Flocking round: Beyoncé, Madame Tussauds' latest waxwork, looking fierce in the park
travelIn a digital age when we have more access than ever to the stars, why are waxworks still pulling in crowds?
Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench appeared at the Hay Festival to perform excerpts from Shakespearean plays
tvJudi Dench and Hugh Bonneville join Benedict Cumberbatch in BBC Shakespeare adaptations
Is this how Mario Balotelli will cruise into Liverpool?
Ronahi Serhat, a PKK fighter, in the Qandil Mountains in Iraqi Kurdistan
Arts and Entertainment
Poet’s corner: Philip Larkin at the venetian window of his home in 1958
booksOr caring, playful man who lived for others? A new book has the answer
Arts and Entertainment
Exhibition at the Centre Pompidou in Metz - 23 May 2012
Matthew McConaughey and his son Levi at the game between the Boston Red Sox and the Houston Astros at Fenway Park on August 17, 2014 in Boston, Massachusetts.
advertisingOscar-winner’s Lincoln deal is latest in a lucrative ad production line
Life and Style
Pick of the bunch: Sudi Pigott puts together roasted tomatoes with peppers, aubergines and Labneh cheese for a tomato-inspired vegetarian main dish
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
Alfred Molina, left, and John Lithgow in a scene from 'Love Is Strange'
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Education

Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £40,000: SThree: SThree Group have been well e...

EYFS Teacher

£120 - £162 per day: Randstad Education Hull: Randstad Education require an ex...

Year 3 Teacher

£120 - £162 per day: Randstad Education Hull: Year 3 primary supply teacher ne...

SEN Teacher

£100 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Bristol: Supply special educational ne...

Day In a Page

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

Nick Clegg the movie

Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

Waxing lyrical

Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

Revealed (to the minute)

The precise time when impressionism was born
From slow-roasted to sugar-cured: how to make the most of the British tomato season

Make the most of British tomatoes

The British crop is at its tastiest and most abundant. Sudi Pigott shares her favourite recipes
10 best men's skincare products

Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
Malky Mackay allegations: Malky Mackay, Iain Moody and another grim day for English football

Mackay, Moody and another grim day for English football

The latest shocking claims do nothing to dispel the image that some in the game on these shores exist in a time warp, laments Sam Wallace
La Liga analysis: Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Pete Jenson starts his preview of the Spanish season, which begins on Saturday, by explaining how Fifa’s transfer ban will affect the Catalans
Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape