After a telegraph article revealed that King’s College London had suffered from many course vacancies this year, Roar questions whether this is an early sign that lifting the student cap is doing more damage to the university’s academic standards as its student numbers are allowed to dramatically increase.
King’s College London was found to have 100 undergraduate degrees with course vacancies just before A-level results were announced this year.
This is part of a trend that has been found in many Russell Group universities since they were given the freedom to have an unlimited number of students after a cap was lifted by the government in 2015.
The removal of this cap has led to many universities embarking on bold expansions to facilitate the higher student numbers that are now permitted.
Yet these course vacancies may be an early indication that King’s has not made the correct preparations to facilitate a dramatic increase in student numbers without costing academic standards.
As a result universities like King’s are being criticised for treating education more as a commercial venture to maximise revenue as opposed to harbouring the best conditions for educational growth.
Tessa Harrison, Director of Student and Education Support at King’s College London, addressed these concerns for Roar: “King’s College London exceeded 2018 undergraduate recruitment targets in some areas which we are very pleased about.
“We had 34 programmes open to new applications on A-level results day this year, and only 12 subject areas had places in Clearing & Adjustment, with limited places available for high achieving students to study at the university.
“King’s was able to recruit a number of students in Clearing and Adjustment through our ‘Superstar’ campaign, which aims to attract those with A*A*A.
“It is also worth noting that King’s is not alone in participating in Clearing and Adjustment; the majority of Russell Group universities now routinely offer programmes through Clearing as a method for enrolling high quality students.
“The release of the student cap in 2015 provided all institutions with the opportunity to increase and widen access to higher education.
“We have maintained our academic standards through our decision making and monitoring processes throughout the application cycle, including through the Confirmation and Adjustment period.
“We have not seen any evidence of academic standards being affected by the lifting of the cap.”
What are the concerns for the university sector now the cap has been lifted?
While this statement from King’s reassures that students would continue to benefit from the cap’s removal, many remain critical of the change, insisting that the extra costs needed to facilitate an increase in students would come at the expense of top level research.
While the government has insisted that introducing more competitive academic entry requirements would address the concern of dropping standards, many are concerned that top tier universities would do the exact opposite, lowering their tariffs and subsequently luring less proficient students with unconditional offers just to fill student number quotas.
Applicants who would normally seek out lower tariff institutions would be poached by higher level universities, creating a far more aggressive market that potentially lowers the standard of the degrees acquired here at King’s and forcing more drop outs.
“Universities are like every other business – when they are successful they tend to want to grow,” said Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute.
However he warns that expansion is a “double edged sword,” insisting that “if they take on lots of students who in the cold light of day don’t thrive at university, then that will fairly quickly show in their drop-out rates.
“They are also conflicted as most are under pressure from regulators to take more students on from tougher backgrounds. There comes a point when if you expand too rapidly it will start to affect your reputation in other ways.”
Statistics such as the decline in the population of 18-year-olds may explain why the number of British applicants to universities has done down by 3.4%, the most since tuition fees were raised to £9,000 in 2012.
As the university expands, will King’s be able to avoid the negative repercussions of the cap’s removal?
While this statement from King’s shows that the university has made an effort to combat the potential negative effects of the removal of the student cap, the key concerns of the student cap’s removal have not been clearly addressed in their statement.
While on the face of it a positive reading can be taken from statements like “exceeding 2018 undergraduate recruitment targets”, ultimately they are vague assurances that only reveal the governing body’s sentiment in those “areas which we are very pleased about”.
The key issue with the raising of the student cap is whether King’s will be able to financially support an increase in students without compromising on the educational standards it has set itself.
While their “Superstar” campaign may have the best of intentions, unless the students hired all meet the A*A*A standards mentioned and a significant number of students are recruited this way, the campaign would not address the scale of the issue.
As good as it may be, is the King’s “Superstar” campaign expected to be the answer that reasonably addresses an issue of this scale?
Equally it is not enormously reassuring to say that the other Russell Group universities use this scheme, because top level universities should have courses competitive enough to avoid having to use Clearing and Adjustment in the first place.
Last year Oxford, Cambridge, UCL, Imperial and LSE opted out of Clearing despite the student cap being lifted because their courses were more competitive than King’s and places were being filled without it.
Given that King’s aims to be a university that can compete with institutions of this calibre, why have we not followed suit?
What is potentially most frustrating is that it is no surprise that King’s has “not seen any evidence of academic standards being affected by the lifting of the cap”, as it has only been three years since the cap was removed.
A government policy as significant as this affects academic institutions in the long term, and certainly when student numbers change more significantly.
King’s has simply not had enough time to be able to tell yet, though these figures may be early evidence of it.
So while King’s may be benefiting from a lifting of the cap commercially, it is still inconclusive as to whether the university is going to have the accompanying finances to maintain the levels of academic excellence that has given it such international recognition.
The likelihood is it will not affect us students here now, but how it will alter the legacy of this wonderful university, only time will tell.