School leaders are urging the government to ensure A-level students who have had their exams cancelled this summer because of the Covid-19 crisis do not face further disadvantage by losing university places because of a cap on student numbers.
The warning came after the Guardian revealed that strict limits on the number of students each university in England can recruit are likely to be imposed by the government to create more stability and avoid an admissions free-for-all as the sector struggles to mitigate the impact of the pandemic.
A government source said each university would face limits on the number of UK and EU undergraduates it could admit for the academic year starting in September – the first such limit since the student numbers cap was scrapped in 2015.
However, Geoff Barton, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, voiced concern about the potential impact on A-level students who have applied to university and could end up losing a place, having already lost the opportunity to sit their exams.
“We are very concerned at the suggestion that some students will not be able to attend universities at which they have been offered a place, and we are seeking more information from higher education representatives,” he said.
“We cannot have a situation in which year 13 students are disadvantaged, particularly given that these young people have already faced the uncertainty and anxiety of their exams being cancelled. We understand the pressures on the higher education sector in the current crisis but students should not suffer as a result.”
One of the key issues facing the sector as a result of the pandemic is the likely loss of the international student intake on which many of the country’s leading research-based universities have become increasingly dependent in recent years. In 2017-18, of the 12,000 students at the London School of Economics, 8,000 were from overseas.
The fear is that those universities who have in the past welcomed large numbers of international students will seek to replace them with UK students, taking them away from other institutions that would in turn face serious financial problems.
Though limits to student numbers might protect lower-tariff institutions, the fear is it could then leave research-based institutions – currently involved in the fight against Covid-19 and seen as vital for the future of the UK – vulnerable because of the loss of the international student fee income that subsidises their work.
Members of Universities UK, which represents 137 institutions, will meet on Tuesday to discuss options, including the possibility of seeking additional support for research-intensive universities via “quality-related” research funding.
“Whatever we do, we must make sure that student choice is preserved and students who have not had their A-levels, do not lose out,” said Sir Steve Smith, the vice-chancellor of the University of Exeter.
David Willetts removed student number controls from 2015 when he was minister for universities and science. Writing for the Higher Education Policy Institute in a blog due to be published on Tuesday, he said: “University is a safe haven for young people in these tough times.
“We can expect many more 18-year-olds to try to get to university now as the alternatives are so poor at the moment. If the government does reintroduce number controls (which I would regret), it must not do so in a way that reduces opportunities for young people to go to university.”
A Department for Education spokesperson said: “We are committed to supporting our world-class higher education institutions, and will continue working closely with the sector to manage the impact of coronavirus.
“We recognise the challenges universities are facing, but are impressed by their resilience and efforts to tackle the virus, through the use of labs, accommodation and community support.”