Higher Education must make sure the (abolition of) the cap fits

 
Wed 18 Dec 2013

By Paul Sant, Associate Dean of UCMK

The world of Higher Education is still digesting the news that the student cap will be lifted from 2015, with an initial first step of increasing student numbers in 2014 by thirty thousand people.  There is no doubt this is a great opportunity, not only for the institutions which want to expand their intake but for huge numbers of young people who might not otherwise have had the chance to take advantage of the excellent level of education on offer from British universities. 

Hiding among these opportunities are a number of challenges and some significant pitfalls, and the degree to which these are avoided in the years to come will be the benchmark by which the sector’s response will be judged.  Firstly, it is extremely important that institutions don’t recruit beyond their means and thereby diminish the value of students’ experiences at university.  They mustn’t be tempted to set up courses which go unfilled, or to overfill those existing ones which are popular and diminish their value in the process.  There must be fair competition between universities; Higher Education can’t be allowed to become like some academic gold rush for student numbers.

Questions about raising the cap were high on the agenda when Vice-Chancellor of the University of Bedfordshire (our parent institution), Bill Rammell and I had the opportunity to meet the head teachers from the secondary schools in Milton Keynes.  It was really encouraging to discover that they are extremely supportive of us.  There’s no doubt that they want there to be a strong campus-based higher education presence in Milton Keynes and recognise that what UCMK offers is an important and meaningful step towards fulfilling that ambition.  What we did learn was that we have a lot of work to do in terms of raising awareness of our existence and of what we offer in terms of courses, facilities and expertise.  It’s also crucial to get the message across that we are in the city to be a part of it.  Half of our students come from the Milton Keynes area and much of what we do is centred on work which complements the needs of local business.  With that in mind I’m hoping to go to visit a number of the schools in the New Year and to meet some of their pupils who I very much hope will be our students of the future. 

One of the benefits of being so new to the sector is that we at UCMK already have a clearly defined plan for recruitment for the next five years.  Growth will be measured and sustainable.  We aren’t going to all of a sudden try to massively up our intake because of the inherent risks I’ve already outlined.  It is central to our philosophy that the experience students have here must be the focus of all that we do.  We have a very adaptable space of here in Saxon Court so we’re fortunate to have the room to grow.  Certainly, international recruitment can be a volatile market and the national policy change will enable us to consider increasing the proportion of students we take in from the UK but it is unlikely to have an impact on the headline numbers.

Earlier this week I had the pleasure of chatting to a gentleman who had trained as a Physical Geographer at what was a Technical School in Luton quite a few years ago.  He was looking round the Luton campus of the University of Bedfordshire where his school used to be and marvelling at the changes time had wrought.  It made me think that in ten, twenty or fifty years to come people may return here to UCMK and reminisce about the times they spent here saying, “Do you remember that first Christmas back in 2013?” and “Just look at it now.  Who’d have thought it?”

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