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UK: Can an economic ‘low’ become an intellectual ‘high’?

The UK government recently decided to fund 10 000 extra student places for applicants at British universities this autumn, a decision generally received with open arms. The move came in response to the latest UCAS statistics, indicating a 9.7 percent increase in the overall number of university applications in the UK since last year, and to the numerous claims, from a variety of higher education stakeholders that more student places need to be financed urgently.

Lord Mandelson, first secretary of state for BIS, declared that funding for the additional places – exclusively targeted at full-time students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects – will be ‘fiscally neutral’, i.e. will come from the government’s existing budget. This in fact means that the government will provide extra grants and loans for students to cover tuition fees, but no additional grants to cover the costs of teaching. Furthermore, the term within which students are supposed to pay back loans (currently five years) will be reduced to two years. Meanwhile, a report commissioned by the Prime Minister to an expert group (led by former Health Secretary, Alan Milburn) explores social mobility and entry into key professions. The report Unleashing Aspiration, issued at the end of July, calls for in particular more financial support for part-time students and for "widening participation" (i.e. for universities to increase the take up of students from disadvantaged groups).

It is still unclear how the promised extra places would be allocated and whether having them is altogether desirable for universities. Some HE stakeholders, such as the National Union of Students (NUS) and the university think tank Million+ argue that the rising demand for university studies and the accommodation of all those who wish to enter into higher education is a positive outcome of the current economic crisis. While others, like Wendi Piatt, director-general of the Russell group of larger research universities, warn that the increase in student take-up should be funded in a sustainable way, in order not to create difficulties for UK universities in the long run, and that maintaining quality is more important than maintaining additional student numbers.

To cut a long story short, the issue of what constitutes a sustainable level of growth in undergraduate student numbers remains open to further discussion.