Evaluating the impact of student number
controls, choice and competition on the
changing HE landscape
Dr Colin McCaig and Dr Carol Taylor
Sheffield Hallam University
Quantitative and qualitative data from
Evaluating the impact of number controls,
choice and competition: An analysis of the
student profile and the student learning
environment in the new higher education
Funded by HEA grant from open call
Student Number Controls: making
a market
• Core and margin allocations
1. institutions could recruit as many high achieving
students as they wished (85,000 taken from the
2. Institutions charging less than £7,500 could bid
for 20,000 places taken from the core
• the bigger your margin (ABB+) the less you
rely on the core
• if you rely on the core, you get squeezed
from above and below... so lower your prices!
Mixed Methods Research Design
Stage 1
National survey of senior managers (PVC
level) in English HEIs and FE Colleges
Spring 2013
(21% response rate)
Stage 2
Face-to-face interviews with strategic level 13 individuals
managers (PVC, Dean or Vice Principal
representing 10
level) - Autumn 2013
3 Pre92s
3 Post92s
2 Specialist Institutions,
CBHE data:
survey responses, 2 interviews
and additional focus group with 3 participants (April 2013)
Findings: survey
Student numbers
• 38.5% anticipated a slight decrease in
undergraduate numbers in coming years
• 23.1% no change 25.6% slight increase
• Pre-1992 institutions more confident of at
least maintaining current profile
• 61.8% indicated that their institution was
planning to further differentiate itself from
other institutions
– 83% of post-92s planning to
• mission groups and league tables the
most common vehicles for this
Marketing strategies
• 87.9% expected to use more social media
and online (post-92s most likely to)
• 78.8% would make more use of
partnerships with schools (post-92s most
likely to)
• Strategies being used less than before:
– direct marketing; TV and Radio, Newspapers
and flyers
Planned course closures
• There are no planned UG course closures in
STEM subjects or for subjects allied to
• Arts subjects are the largest target for
closure followed by Humanities and then
Social Sciences
• In total 31.8% of institutions responding to
this question are anticipating consolidating
their course closures in non-science subjects
Course rationalisation
• One HEI said they had had a ‘major reduction in
low recruiting courses’ and another said
‘considerable rationalisation of courses across all
subject areas’ took place in 2011/ 12 in
anticipation of changes.
• Combined Honours and Joint Honours degrees
were particularly vulnerable
• One HEI with a large Combined Honours
programme were ‘slimming down’ their portfolio
from 141 courses to less than 50 courses.
Course rationalisation: sub-degree
• Seven respondents indicated that subdegree provision, such as Foundation
degrees, HNDs, HNCs and part-time
provision, is likely to be discontinued in all
subject areas
• Main reasons given was that this provision
has moved to their partner FE colleges.
Employability effect?
• Large proportion of institutions planning to
increase WBL (58.3%) and Sandwich Courses
• Suggests institutions see enhancing employability
opportunities as a significant factor in attracting
students in a more stratified market.
• 40% indicated a move to increasing online
learning which, at least for some HEIs, seemed to
be linked to the ‘mature employer-paid part-time
Niche provision?
• 71% said they would be offering more bespoke
degrees with shared modules.
– most likely to take place in Social Sciences (55%)
– All other subject areas in the range of 35 - 40%.
• Suggests that Social Sciences, Arts and
Humanities subjects may diminish in number as
single honours degrees and Combined Honours
• ..... but that elements of them will continue in the
form of ‘core’ or ‘elective’ modules contributing to a
range of other named degrees.
Institutional responses to SNC
(core and margin)
• Pre-1992s: centralised admissions systems, removing
departments' ability to make contextual offers:
• Why? maintain and / or protect subject breadth (within
core SNC) harder to justify broader provision in subjects
where few applicants have ABB+ profiles (i.e. arts,
humanities, social sciences, languages)
• Why? maintain / protect widening participation and other
mission goals (within core SNC) pressure to expand their
ABB+ margin has constrained their ability to widen
participation within core
Institutional responses to SNC
(core and margin)
• Post-1992s: more affected by overall
allocated numbers:
– closure and rationalisation of some courses
– increased emphasis on recruitment and
retention, league table positioning, and NSS
– withdrawing modules that have been shown
not to recruit strongly
– freeing up resources for more lucrative
activities (i.e. other provision, or for research)
Institutional responses to SNC
(core and margin)
• Post-1992s: numbers still relatively buoyant
• little evidence of high grades applicants
‘trading up' to higher status institutions
-- but--• all pervasive fear - felt compelled to raise
their entry requirements
• reduce their part-time and sub-degree
• close poorly recruiting programmes
Institutional responses to SNC
(core and margin)
• CBHE sector:
• instability - but - welcomed opportunity for
• more competition and less collaboration in
college-HE institution relationships
• Specialist Institutions: limited room for
manoeuvre within core SNC because of
small overall numbers
Institutional responses to SNC
(core and margin)
• CBHE - least autonomy as a sector
• but flexibility and agility to meet new
market conditions
• welcomed direct HEFCE numbers and
prestige that comes from HE provision
• however vulnerable to threat from New
Alternative Providers (especially post2015/16)
Institutional responses to SNC
(core and margin)
Generic responses: employability
• increasingly seen as important across the sector
• emphasis on Key Information Sets (KIS)
including employability outcomes as reported in
the Destination of Leavers from HE (DLHE)
survey has been the key driver
• DLHE outcomes seen as a reductive metric in
league tables
• negatively affects the breadth of provision and
the public perception of the value of higher
Institutional responses to SNC
(core and margin)
Generic responses: retention and success
• important for post-1992s
• in response to OFFA guidelines
• league tables
• student satisfaction
• income
Marketing practices
• all institutions types increasing use of
marketing and recruitment practices
• differentiation is seen as a strategic goal in
• focus on maximising high grade students
• more scrutiny of competitors profiles (NSS,
DLHE, league tables)
• broadening outreach to areas of higher
participation (London and SE)
The changing student profile of
• All institutional types experienced greater
volatility in admissions and enrolments
• half of all respondents reporting higher
UCAS points for entry
• declining numbers of part-time students
(since fee increase)
• BTEC-qualified students are increasingly
clustering in post-1992 institutions
(implications for transition support)
• no immediate impact on diversity of student
body (e.g. BME, gender)
Learning and Teaching
• Most institutions undergoing portfolio
review in response to choice and
• STEM, Medicine, Dentistry and Sciences
least likely to be affected
• Combined Honours and Joint Honours
degrees were particularly vulnerable to
• CBHE sector least likely to innovate
Learning and Teaching
• enhancing face-to-face learning was seen as a
key priority
• evidence of innovative approaches to teaching
and learning
• centrality of teaching and learning to quality of the
student experience
• increased use of technology to: free up more time
for meaningful contact between staff and students;
enhance student engagement to achieve better
course identity and belonging; and promote
genuinely dialogic modes of teaching and learning
Responding to the student
• general scepticism about KIS and NSS but were
key drivers of change
• increased investment in, and enhancement of,
Student Services
• better and broader range of support to students
• institutions’ own qualitative evidence about the
student experience seen as more significant than
KIS data.
• All institutions voiced a commitment to
enhancing personal tutoring and pastoral
support for students as an important aspect of the
student experience
Utilisation of space
• continuing shifting of resources to subjects
that were expanding
• increasing the flexibility of spaces to enable
different forms of use
• moving away from fixed furniture in rooms
with rows of computers to moveable desks and
chairs on castors with laptops and mobile devices
• promote more interactive delivery modes and
to develop 'group working, social working,
social learning, breakout groups'.
Interview data:
key themes:
• strategic uses of SNC
• changing the institutional focus
• aspects of marketisation
SNC for pre-1992s
......the flexibility through to AAB, you know,
three years ago we just had a number and if we
hit that number at the beginning of when the ALevels came out and we had to stop, absolutely
had to stop, we couldn’t take anyone, no matter
how good they were, not ever. So I think there
are benefits in what’s been introduced in terms
of flexibility and it’s certainly paid off in terms of
people getting into their first choice institution
(Pre-1992 1)
Pre-1992s using SNC to preserve
non-ABB subjects
...small number of subject areas whether there
simply is not an ABB market and the kinds of
decisions that we will see in institutions about
the future of those subject areas....a fairly small
number of specialist subject areas... for
instance archaeology, music, so it’s anything
that is specialist.. [and] social work, education;
not traditionally ABB and above, and often
taking account of mature learners.. (Pre-1992
Pre-1992 WP strategies
.... our key target is to generate more
applications from the higher achieving
students……….. So with the student number
control we’ve not had as much flexibility … and
I think the first year of SNC probably squeezed
some of those [WP] students out.... rather than
allocating numbers out to departments, which is
what we’ve done the previous year, they were
kept more centrally to take account of WP
groups, non-standard qualifications and mature
students (Pre-1992 1)
Pre-1992 WP strategies
....for 2012 entry we actually changed this
[centralised allocation] policy and that was
directly related to student number control, prior
to 2012 entry academic schools could choose
for themselves whether they wanted to make a
lower offer or not. Then with student number
control coming in it seemed sensible to try and,
well, align the WP policy a bit more with student
number control which meant in effect that
academic schools shouldn’t waste lower offers
if they didn’t need to..... (Pre-1992 2)
Pre-1992 using SNC to preserve
vulnerable subjects
At [this University] we don't have a central admissions
programme, it's devolved. So what we basically do is,
we say to them 'These are your SNCs, you manage
them.' Now in terms of allocating the SNCs we obviously
take account of the nature of the programmes they've
got, so the SNCs are actually handled locally within the
school and we just look at the macro level....
[I]t was so important that the faculties and the schools
have said 'Okay, this is an area that's vulnerable, we
want to retain it, we want to maintain numbers there so
we clearly have to, in a sense, if we don't think we can
get enough ABBs we need to use the SNC strategically.
So that's how it's been done (pre-1992 3).
Post-1992 concerns
The commitment to Widening Participation in many
universities who are worried about their SNCs [is]
almost disappearing because of the risks that go
with students arriving, not being retained, that
affecting effectively your income streams.. (Post-92
.. I think we are starting a conversation around
whether or not we would want to be offering some
unconditional places to people that we feel are really
highly likely to come to us and that takes the worry
away for them. (Post-1992 3)
CBHE- changing relationships with
The student number controls, it was all right battling
with universities, you knew what you up against.
You'd sit down in a room, you'd have a chat, you'd
have an argument and you'd end up with some kind
of an agreement.
Now you've got this SNC thing and all of the
message that came out of the number control thing
which was 'Universities are going to be giving
numbers to colleges which they are never ever going
to get back'... this is HEFCE saying 'You haven't got
these numbers anymore they are going permanently
to the colleges' and I think hardened attitudes.
(CBHE 1)
New Entrant Providers- the future?
My boss how who's the VP got very upset about new
entrants and I was just thinking 'Oh it doesn't matter'
but I've had two phone calls from people who've got
50 HEFCE numbers, so that's two, that's 100….
....they come to us ...asking for advice about setting
fees and charging and marketing and etc.... and one
of them is starting it in Public Services, that I was sat
waiting to do. So it is outrageous that they're giving
them those numbers........ they've got validation
agreement with Edexcel in place already .... that's
probably why they've bid for them in the first place
(CBHE 2)
Changing the institutional focus
Post-1992 - pressure to move 'upmarket'
...there is a tension within the institution, there is this
trade-off about quality, quality, quality, don’t worry about
the numbers, versus quality, plus worry about the
numbers, if I can put it that way.
WP, I think there is a pressure point there because I
know that the governors are very keen on the widening
participation, widening access, local community role
agenda, versus the fact that of course if you look at our
numbers at the moment, we exceed all of our
benchmarks on widening access... So losing some of
those numbers would not probably make a very big
significant impact on that agenda per se, well in terms of
those benchmarks anyway. (Post-1992 1)
Post-1992 - pressure to move 'upmarket'
.... it’s interesting I think as to whether trying to
chase into the middle ground, which is what the
university strategy is, is the most sensible strategy,
or whether you get squeezed out of the squeezed
middle. I think only time will tell, but if I was to look
around other Post-92 universities in [this region], it
seems to me to be that everyone is following the
same strategy and I’m not clear that that is, although
no one could disagree with the strategy in the sense
that it’s not something you wouldn’t say, go for
excellence, go for quality, on the other hand if 90%
of your other institutions are doing that…. (Post-1992
Post-1992 - pressure to move 'upmarket'
... retention’s a big issue, it’s not only the
idea that [dropping out] is a terrible thing for
a student in terms of life changing events,
but the financial imperative is manifest. So
that’s a grand challenge and the business
model is absolutely simplified: recruit,
retain, recruit, retain. Particularly if you
are not going to be a big attracter of
AAB/ABB (Post-1992 2)
Post-1992 - pressure to move 'upmarket'
So it's ranging from satisfaction through to completions through to
looking at all your marks across all your modules and where modules
are not performing as well they are. We go into quite a lot of analysis
and get reports from the module leaders. Sometimes it's a one-off,
sometimes it's a recurring problem. We've got rid of courses that are
not performing, we've got rid of modules that, we refer to them as the
grim reaper modules that were tripping up far too many students and
damaging their chances of really getting a good degree. So we've done
a lot to, I mean when I took this job up several years back we had
probably, I'm not exaggerating if I said we had probably about 500
undergraduate courses, there were different combinations, we now
have about 120....
[driver was to] make more time for research. A presence for research is
what makes a university a university.... I have no doubt that it improves
the quality of teaching, I think where you've got research active staff
involved in teaching then I think there is a link with improved
satisfaction (Post-1992 3)
I don’t think it’s down to the number controls, I think
that as a university we’ve been trying to ramp up
what we do from an employability perspective over a
number of years and that’ll continue because you
know if you pay £9,000 a year, you need to be able
to demonstrate what you’re going to get from it, not
just from a student experience, but an employability
perspective. (Pre-1992 1)
.... some courses are much more in a recruiting
mode than they used to be, so I think they’re really
just working to get across the employability
message, make sure they’ve got good case studies,
good stories, good data to back it up. (Pre-1992 2)
Employability through combined
honours? A pre-1992 solution
I think there is a, the 9K started people thinking
much more clearly about value-added, 'what do I get
out of Higher Education?', which I think are good
questions to ask, and started emphasising notions of
skillsets which I think we've been trying to address
by saying 'Actually if you do a modern foreign
language your employability could be quite
significantly enhanced', particular if you do it with
another subject. So if you're doing physics, biological
sciences, do it with Spanish, do it with Russian, do it
with Japanese, which we can offer here, that can
enhance your employability as opposed to
diminishing it. (Pre-1992 3)
Employability: post-1992
Employability however I think is really important, but I think the attention
is paid in the wrong places. Raising aspirations and thinking of
possibilities as a first year student is where the action should be,
unfortunately in most UK universities that’s a trick that’s missed, even
though the data emerging on student decision making is indicating that
they’re not making decisions early enough, aspirations and possibilities
are not being seeded with them early enough. (Post-1992 2)
[DLHE].... it’s daft comparing institutions when the profiles are very,
very different. [If] two-thirds of your provision is Education and Health
for example, they’re likely to be going into jobs, if you’ve some parts of
your provision which are in creative and aesthetic industries, it’s a
completely different story about graduate employability, dance, physical
theatre, aerial performance, these people don’t go into graduate jobs
immediately, what would you call a graduate job in many of those parts
of the industry? (Post-1992 2)
Aspects of marketisation
(re)branding the post-1992s
I suspect that we are in a, I think we’re in a
situation where we need to, probably in
terms of our marketing, understand what is
the real brand we’re trying to sell and who
we are trying to market to and how diverse
that market may be in terms of the
constituents and I don’t think we’ve got to
that stage yet. (Post-1992 1)
(re)branding the post-1992s
I do see a lot of branding which is much hungrier than ever before and
not just about the academic brand, the academic reputation.... I think
branding could be considered almost like an algorithm of components
derived in terms of .... the indicators within league table algorithms.
.....But I do think that’s where you’re starting to see sharper
consideration of brand, whereas in the past it was almost like, brand
was more about, come here, we’re a little bit different, quirky.
[The use of NSS data in marketing] it’s real schizophrenic behaviour, as
academics we know that the data is pretty flaky in many ways and it
would have to be triangulated bottom line, but that’s not how the rest of
the political world of data use think or behave. So I do feel a bit sorry
for places, but they are so worried about getting students that they’ll
say anything almost....... With poverty sometimes there’s a diminution
of ethics. Hungry people do hungry things, so it’s one of the reasons
not to let people be hungry. (Post-1992 2)
Discourse and social control
Oh they’ve been planted and seeded, it’s great politics, the
management of that discourse is amazing. …. and it just
infiltrates the press and infiltrates the man on the street who
doesn’t really understand the issues, but can say the better
universities, the top universities. [Thinks that] 'get back in your
box working class' is the message that Government pumps out…
I really do lament that because people’s life chances, it’s oldfashioned kind of control your masses stuff, but it’s cleverly
done, if these things were publicly spoken it would be
determined as fascist, but it’s operating.
.. thank god universities are populated by bright people mostly
with a decent concept of social justice; if that disappears, the
universities don’t exist anymore for me.(Post-1992 2)
Targeting the influencers
And networking strategically; we run, we do quite a lot of
entertaining of strategically important people, like
headmasters, college heads, so we've done a lot of
dinners at the House of Lords and dinners in various
venues, all part and parcel of spreading the word and
getting the colleges and, we know quite a lot of the
colleges anyway but the schools, heads of local schools
and getting them more involved in the university. We've
had a number of heads who've been involved in the
graduation ceremonies....
[Outreach] you need to get to the parents I think, it's
about raising their aspirations for their children and
getting them thinking which seems to me to be the most
important thing. (Post-1992 3)
Summary: conceptualising the SNC
• making a market - did it work?
• changed behaviours / variations on a theme
– using SNC to preserve (pre-1992s)
– squeezing upwards (post-1992s)
– fighting on two fronts (CBHE)
• future prospects- an actual open market in HE
30,000 additional places in 2014/15
SNC abolished in 2015/16
new providers can offer unlimited funded places from 2015/16
supply will meet/exceed demand
tuition fees will fall at the lower end
how will Treasury maintain control of the costs......?
Contact details
Dr Colin McCaig c.mccaig@shu.ac.uk
Dr Carol Taylor c.a.taylor@shu.ac.uk

Changing the HE landscape or pulling up the ladder?: the