Universities in crisis as student numbers fall

Colleges that have offered most to poorer students will be biggest losers as impact of fees bites

More than 30 universities are facing a 10 per cent fall in student numbers this autumn, according to figures released today.

A breakdown of next year's university budgets shows that middle-ranking universities and former polytechnics will suffer as a result of the new funding system, which will see tuition fees rise to up to £9,000 a year.

Worst hit, according to the Higher Education Funding Council for England, will be the University of East London and the University of Bedfordshire, which are likely to suffer falls of 12 per cent. In all, 34 universities in England will have their student numbers cut by at least 10 per cent. HEFCE estimates there will be 10,900 fewer student places across the country. Academics said it was universities who had done the most to open themselves up to disadvantaged groups that appeared to be suffering the worst cuts.

By contrast, most of the members of the Russell Group – which represents most of the country's leading research institutions – are set to expand student numbers. Michael Driscoll, chairman of the million+ university think tank and vice-chancellor of Middlesex University, said the overwhelming majority of institutions were losing student places.

"These allocations show the true extent of the Coalition's reform of fees and funding and the cutback in the overall number of university places being funded," he said.

Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union, added: "At a time when record numbers of people are out of work, the Government should be making it easier for people to access education."

Although overall student numbers have been cut, under the new system universities can recruit beyond their fixed target so long as they take in students with at least two As and a B at A-level. In addition, 20,000 places have been set aside for higher education providers charging less than £7,500 a year.

As a result, elite universities with a higher percentage of AAB students tend to benefit, as do further education colleges charging lower fees. An extra 65 such colleges are receiving funding for higher education degrees for the first time.

According to HEFCE, just over 10,000 of the 20,000 places for low charging universities have gone to further education colleges. The shake-up appears to have created a "squeezed middle" among universities, which are unlikely to recruit large numbers of AAB students but are still charging higher fees.

Sir Alan Langlands, chief executive of HEFCE, said he did not believe the changes would see universities "going into substantial financial problems". "All of these can cope with this level of reduction," he added. He said they were all "confident they can ride it out".

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