Strict limits on the number of students that each university in England can recruit are set to be imposed by the government in an effort to avoid a free-for-all on admissions, with institutions plunged into financial turmoil as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, the Guardian has learned.

A government source said each university would be restricted in the number of UK and EU undergraduates they could admit for the academic year starting in September, in a move backed by higher education leaders. It will be the first such limit since the university admission cap was lifted in 2015.

This month, the Guardian reported that British universities faced a black hole of hundreds of millions of pounds in tuition fees as international students from China and other countries severely affected by coronavirus are forced to cancel or postpone enrolments.

All UK universities are closed and expect to reopen in September. To avoid certain universities hoovering up domestic students to fill their courses, leaving other, less prestigious institutions with empty lecture theatres, the pain will be spread through the introduction of a cap, it is understood.

“Unless there are significant developments, this will happen,” said one policymaker who has been involved in the discussions between the government and the universities.

The immediate imposition of a cap on places means that students currently going through the application process are set to have their choices restricted. It also means some students will not be able to attend universities for which they have the offer of a place.

The policy was reluctantly backed by the board of Universities UK at a virtual meeting held on Friday, although it was strongly opposed by some leading universities, including several members of the Russell Group of research-intensive institutions.

The decision is likely to be announced within the next few days, although some well-known institutions are fighting a rearguard battle in the corridors of Whitehall over worries that they will also face financial difficulty if they cannot recruit additional student numbers from the UK to replace the international tuition fees they expect to lose.

The University of Essex is believed to be among those aggressively offering unconditional offers to keep their numbers up.

The University of Essex is believed to be among those aggressively offering unconditional offers to keep their numbers up. Photograph: Justin Kase/Alamy Stock Photo

Many university vice-chancellors back the temporary reimposition of intake controls, a policy abandoned by the government in 2015. They see it as a way of avoiding a brutal recruitment season after a group of universities including Liverpool and Essex began aggressively offering unconditional offers, which award places without regard to a student’s exam results, to sixth-formers as the scale of the coronavirus epidemic emerged.

“There is huge panic among universities at the moment. In the short term at least, a cap on student numbers would be welcomed,” said a senior figure at one English university.

Vice-chancellors were already nervous about their international student recruitment for this year and 2021, especially those relying on students from China, who now account for 120,000 full-time students in the UK.

Competition for domestic students was already fierce because the number of school leavers in the population hits a demographic trough in the UK this year. But after UK schools were shut down and A-level exams scrapped this month, there was a rush by universities to begin converting conditional offers to unconditional ones, afraid that they would lose out to more prestigious rivals.

“Some universities behaved very badly,” said one participant, who argued that the university application service Ucas should have been frozen by the government as soon as the announcement about schools and A-levels was made to avoid the scramble for students that took place.

The government and the Office for Students, the higher education regulator for England, called for a moratorium on unconditional offers, but that is set to expire, with signs that what one official dubbed a “free-for-all” would be reignited unless a cap was imposed.

Nick Hillman, the head of the Higher Education Policy Institute(Hepi), who was previously a special adviser to the government, said: “There has to be a policy response to this severe crisis, and we have to protect our university sector at a time of such profound change.

“But there are people who have long wanted to restrict access to higher education who might see this as the chance to do it. Yet when there are fewer jobs to go around, education becomes more important, not less.”

Hillman said the coronavirus pandemic was “fast becoming the catalyst for the return of student number caps”, in opposition to “every ministerial utterance since at least 2010” on the subject.

“Reintroducing number caps would protect those universities that have grown the most in recent years by locking down the number of home students that they educate and stopping others from growing at their expense. Older, more prestigious universities would be the biggest losers as they had hoped to be able to replace lost international students with more home students,” Hillman said.

Those university leaders opposed to the cap argue that there is no rush to impose the policy, given the uncertainties over how the coronavirus crisis will play out, and that decisions on admissions could wait until July at the latest.

Chris Husbands, vice-chancellor of Sheffield Hallam University, is to argue in an article to be published by Hepi on Monday that “radical action is needed on university admissions”, including the reintroduction of student number controls for more than one year.

The Department for Education was approached for comment.



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