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How many people should go to university?

March 18, 2016

It is for the Scottish Government to determine the size of the higher education sector required to deliver the skills necessary for economic growth.

Commission on Widening Access, March 2016


How many people should go to university? Scotland’s Access Commission turns out to have a very specific take on the purpose of HE.  It’s all about fuelling the economy: human capital theory rules, leaving no space for any romanticism about the intrinsic value of developing the intellect, democratic or otherwise.

The Scottish Government by contrast says entry to university should be about “ability to learn”, implying there should be space in the system for anyone with that quality (and who wants to go),  even if it might be more economically useful for them to do something else, or as useful for them to do something cheaper to fund.  The rhetoric of “ability to learn” implies a demand-led system.

Ability to what?

Ironically, England is now much further down the line than Scotland towards a system driven by student demand. The cap has been lifted on places.  The remaining constraint is students’  “willingness to borrow” (not their ability to pay – the Scottish rhetoric needs to catch up with a decade of universal fee loans).  That willingness has turned out to be been much higher than many predicted, for whatever reason. There’s some additional limit in the English system set by “willingness to provide”: some  institutions are not expanding much.  But plenty are.   It’s an expensive model upfront for the state, and later for graduates, and only possible south of the border because university funding has been re-packaged as off-balance sheet loans.

Sticking instead with conventional cash funding, Scotland can’t afford simply to let everyone who wants to go to university do so, even if their grades would have been good enough to get them there in the past. The Access Commission notes that there’s been grade inflation in admissions in Scotland in recent years: hence its advocacy of separate “access thresholds” for the most disadvantaged.  The line about “ability to learn” conceals that it’s really “ability to be admitted” that counts.

An economic case?

Maybe the Commission is right and  economic need should govern the system’s size. Labour market data still shows graduates are more likely to be employed, and paid better, than non-graduates, especially women. There’s also a low hum from employers about wanting more of certain types of skills.  That suggests we’re not over-producing.  But there’s also a common perception that there are already too many people going to university.  I hear this from parents, sometimes from people who work in schools, and it’s a favourite theme of broadsheet columnists that graduates are ending up in dead-end jobs. It’s a view that’s present in Scotland and tends to be body-swerved in the political debate.

Although concerns about too many young people being pushed towards a degree are often expressed in generic terms, listen carefully and it’s working class young people who are more often felt to be under inappropriate pressure to head for university (I’ve heard that not least from people who teach in less advantaged schools).   I don’t disagree that the debate can sound dismissive of non-university choices: I’ll just feel more comfortable when that’s being said as much by the teachers and parents of the off-spring of the professional classes, about their own kids.  Meantime, the “too many” argument is most likely to rebound on those already less privileged.

There’s definitely room for much better, earlier unbiased information, guidance and advice on post-school choices: COWA rightly highlights that. The  size of system would then flow from (a) creating informed demand, and (b) responding to that.  But that’s back to an uncapped model, with the “right” level of participation for economy being the aggregate of individual choices.

COWA’s alternative,  state planning of provision on some set of economic criteria relies in a faith in officialdom’s predictive capacities that I don’t share. There’s already one area where the Scottish Government already tries to manage the supply to meet demand. That’s teachers, and getting that right, within the much-monitored and relatively closed economy of the Scottish schools system, has been a perennial headache.

How many can we educate?

Alternatively, you might want to challenge a narrowly economic calculus. If you believe the most important thing about going to university is learning to think better, then the correct number of students might be those we have to the capacity to teach to do so.  If I have a worry about the huge expansion in university participation in the past 25 years, it’s how confident we can be that all these students are emerging at the end of a degree much better tooled up intellectually than when they started (this is a separate point from what subjects are being studied: good teaching transcends the topic). That could be framed as a economic issue.  For me it would be more an educational and democratic one.

How you quantify a country’s capacity to offer a truly university-level education is unclear. All the official measures show results are improving and the system is now explicitly structured around producing set intellectual achievements (“learning outcomes” – I speak as a current student: it’s an unrecognisable world from 30 years ago).   You’ll hear anecdotes about educational warehousing and poor teaching and courses, but as with the graduates-in-Starbucks argument, the anecdotes are at odds with the statistical evidence.

The pragmatic reality

In practice, the size of the system in Scotland has been decided for years not  by economic formula, ability to learn or reference to intellectual teaching capacity, but in a pragmatic way.  It’s been based on two questions: what are we paying for already, and can we afford this year to add a few more places?

The decision on numbers is therefore largely about short-term political judgement and marginal decisions about immediate spending priorities.  I don’t think that’s an indefensible approach when things are relatively static.  But it starts to come apart if applications  are rising, and the government is celebrating that fact, but there’s no equivalent increase  in provision.  That’s been the story of the past few years: see below. To that is now being added a (justifiable) push to increase the numbers admitted from the most disadvantaged backgrounds, which risks displacing the next-most-disadvantaged before the most privileged are much affected (see here).  In that context, continuing to top up the system ad hoc with no systematic cross-referencing to the general pressure from applicants looks less defensible.

How many people should go to university?

The instrumental argument that there’s some  economically right number is superficially attractive but ultimately a chimera. We could start instead from what is intrinsically valuable about a university education, as opposed to any other. I’ll assert that it’s the chance to spend several years learning to be  a better critical thinker at a demanding level, as part of learning more about a subject you are really interested in. If that’s not your thing, that’s fine, and we should support you developing in other ways that you’d prefer. If it is your thing, it ought to be a life-changing experience which will transform your relationship with the world.  The benefits  will go far beyond the economic, for you and for those around you.

There is no magic number or percentage of the population for whom this is a sensible way to spend a bit of their life.  There are however likely still to be many people from less advantaged backgrounds who would get a huge amount out of a university education, either straight from school  or later, but who aren’t getting the chance.  Some never apply, and the Commission has lots to say about that too, but let’s worry here about the ones who are applying but not getting in.

The UCAS acceptance rate for Scots at age 18 is now just below 74%, compared to around 80% in the years up to 2008: see figure 11 here.    Looking at applicants of all ages, UCAS shows an overall acceptance rate of 68% for Scotland in 2015 (from Table 2 here), compared to 77% in 2008 (from Figure 10 here).  Looked at from the perspective of the unsuccessful, the “disappointment rate” has grown from 23% to 32%. The Commission correctly says  that the most disadvantaged are most affected by this.

The change happened quickly between 2008  and 2011 and we have stuck at this level ever since.   To dismiss this as a function of lots more inappropriate applicants, you would have to take a very strong position on the quality of Scottish applicants having dropped suddenly: the evidence of grade inflation in admissions wouldn’t be on your side.

UCAS reports there were 51,295  Scottish applicants in 2015 of whom 34,775 were accepted (Table 2 again), implying  4,700 more people would need to have been accepted for the acceptance rate to be back at 2008 levels (51,295 x 77% = 39,497), implying there are three or four times that number of Scottish students “missing” in total from our universities, compared to what would have happened if supply had kept pace with demand.

If these students were in the system, it would be costing around £120m to £160m more than now. University budgets have just been cut by over £20 million.  Perhaps we think the old acceptance rate was too high, or current applicants are less deserving: even so, these figures imply that an unprecedently large gap has opened up between public aspiration and government delivery. Some of this ghost army of the rebuffed may eventually make it to university via college: but that begs other questions (see footnote 1).

It would of course by helpful if we could make room by expunging from the system any people who have been efficiently delivered by the educational conveyor belt, but are now only going through the motions.  The problem is that this group appears very hard to spot in the applicant pool.  Until we get better at that, or at persuading them to do something else (tough, when a degree has such strong social status and labour market currency), taking no action to address these historically low acceptance rates will mean plenty of able people from all sorts of backgrounds will continue to be turned down.

Funding expansion

The Commission observes that one option for meeting the cost of expansion might be more efficient use of existing funded places (fewer repeat years for articulating students, for example).  So some of the cost of admitting extra students might be offset by savings elsewhere in the teaching budget. Maybe. But the SFC clearly didn’t see such savings being possible in the short-run, when it recently pulled back from releasing extra access places for next year. Moving to a three year honours degree programme for many students would allow far more people the chance to go to university, just using current resources, but who believes the system will move that way on any scale?  Not me.

The government could bring down the cost of providing extra places by ceasing to fully fund everyone’s teaching costs from the cash budget and introducing a fee loan for part of the cost, for some or all students.  To find £160m, the upper limit of the sums above, implies asking every SAAS-funded student to substitute £1,200 a year of their free tuition for a loan (or the richest half to forego £2,400). I’m guessing that will not happen. One mathematically correct but doubtless politically unacceptable way to describe this, is that to save people from better off families less than £10,000 of debt for a degree, or everyone a debt of less than £5,000, we are excluding thousands of other people from university every year.

So we are locked into an expensive model of expansion. Legitimate questions then arise about pouring more money into university places at the expense of other parts of the education system.  That won’t alter that the more we cap now, the more certainly we will be freezing out able people who could derive substantial benefit from going to university. I suggest the immediate choices here aren’t economic, but moral and political.


  1.  All this raises a question about the growth in articulation.  Articulation is a great thing for those who are tentative about the journey at the start.  I spent ten minutes yesterday explaining it to someone who has never been to higher education: for them it could be perfect.   But if some of that growth in articulation is people who really wanted to go to university and have ended up in college on an HN course as a fallback, in the hope of getting a second chance at university entry later, it begs more questions.  Growing articulation statistics have been held up in recent years as a sign of colleges’ success.  In part they will be, but they may also be a signal of the system’s failure to give some people what they wanted, and were already capable of doing, in the first place. I’m not aware of any research that’s been done on how many HN entrants tried unsuccessfully for university first: but then, in whose interests would it be to commission that? Also, if displaced degree students are on HN courses, does that have any knock-on effect on a further group of students?  I don’t know how we’d tell, but it’s a reasonable concern.
  2. Acceptance rates in England and Wales are substantially higher than in Scotland, even though application rates are higher too.  Their acceptance rates also dropped around the turn of the decade, but have more than recovered compared to 2008. The links above provide data for all the UK nations, for those interested.





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