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Beware chancellors bearing gifts

Further education colleges are likely to suffer as the result of universities being allowed to admit unlimited numbers of students, writes Mike Boxall.

Well, who saw that coming? George Osborne’s announcement in his autumn statement that student number controls on home and European Union undergraduate recruitment will be dropped from 2015 seems to have caught everyone by surprise—not least, judging by their cryptically bemused responses, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, the Higher Education Funding Council for England and Universities UK. It would have been less surprising if Mr Osborne had announced just the opposite, for example that quota caps would be tightened to limit the public costs of student-loan support. Which prompts several interesting questions: why announce this now? How does it make fiscal sense? Who will benefit (or lose)? And what might be the further implications?

Given the silence on higher education policy intentions from all political parties in their autumn conferences, and many more politically pressing current issues, why did the chancellor choose to make this announcement now? His ostensible reason is to open access to 60,000 qualified applicants who did not gain places in the last recruitment round. But this is difficult to reconcile with the volume of unfilled places across the sector—especially but not only in further education colleges—and the dramatic reductions in the number of courses offered through the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service. It is becoming apparent that years of managed excess demand for higher education is giving way to excess capacity (whether physical or online), and that few aspiring students need be excluded by a lack of places. So Mr Osborne’s declared motivation doesn’t wash.

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