How to square widening participation with student number caps

Covid-19 is creating a snowballing set of policy challenges across every part of national life. Like whack-a-mole, every time you deal with one issue, another one springs up elsewhere. Everyone is desperately grabbing anything they can find to whack as many moles as possible.

The latest mole to pop up: how do we make sure the university sector survives if a major source of income, international students, dries up for a year? People want to whack this particular mole with a temporary set of student number caps, to spread the pain more evenly. What are the next set of moles that will appear if we take this option?

Implementing a cap

Impetus has always opposed student number caps in principle. We believe all young people who would benefit from higher education should have the opportunity to do so. We need to make sure any caps first of all are temporary. Some in the Treasury would quite like them to be permanent, to cut down on costs.

Bearing these two things in mind, a crucial feature of a temporary cap should be that it does not restrict the overall number of students going to university, only how they are distributed. Effectively, we need a way of having no overall cap on numbers, but a market share cap.

This means that the cap needs to flex as we go through the clearing process. In the first instance, the cap will likely see all places filled. But then more places can be released into the system, to enable applicants to find courses. The cap is probably therefore best operated by UCAS. It will also need an expansion of the Adjustment process, to allow applicants to trade up as additional places become available at institutions that they would prefer (and that would want to offer them a place).

Impact on disadvantaged applicants

This is an unprecedented situation, but there are a few logical implications of everything that is going on. One of them is that disadvantaged students are likely to be most affected by any changes. We need to pre-empt this.

Why are they going to be most affected? Firstly, research shows that high-attaining disadvantaged young people are more likely to be under-predicted their grades by their teachers. We need to make sure this does not lead to them missing out on places at more selective universities. There is a real risk that this becomes a perfect storm, with fewer disadvantaged young people having the ‘grades’ for the most selective universities, just as those universities are hit with a cap.

To combat this, all top third universities should have a quota specifically for disadvantaged young people – not something we ever expected to propose, but a one-off necessity. This should be set in such a way as to make a significant step towards universities achieving their Access and Participation Plan targets.

Impact on applicants more broadly

It is also worth thinking through the logic of how applicants will respond more broadly. Some students might opt to delay their university applications by a year, especially if they find themselves with the unfortunate hat-trick of being awarded grades below what they want, unable to secure a place on a course they want, and uncertainty about whether university teaching can even start in the autumn. There is a risk for some disadvantaged young people that these factors see them missing out on university entirely.

But it could also mean we are building towards next year’s recruitment cycle, potentially breaking records for the number of applicants. This will be doubly true if many of the international students who might have started at university this year also simply delay by a year. So we might need an intervention to prevent this bottleneck and make sure that the overall number of applicants placed this year does not drop dramatically.

While tuition fee levels do not make an enormous difference to most young people’s overall financial circumstances, they are a high-profile issue with massive signalling potential. So the Government should implement a one-off tuition fee cut for young people who start their courses this September, to boost numbers and disincentivise deferring for a year.

Expand the applicant pool

Everything we are talking about here is about sharing the pain of lower student numbers evenly and fairly. But this might be fatalistic. It’s possible to imagine an increase in applicants this year, if the grading system ends up being marginally more generous (or as generous, but supplemented by people who opt to take exams). There are also likely to be fewer alternatives to university – whether jobs, apprenticeships or trainee schemes. In these circumstances, it would be particularly important not to cap overall numbers, denying young people an opportunity to access higher education.

Moreover, there are steps that can be taken to boost applicant numbers. Every year, some people do not go to university who could – perhaps their grades fall just short or they don’t quite get on their preferred course or their circumstances change. UCAS could contact all unplaced applicants from the last three application cycles to offer them a free application this year. And a similar offer could be made to young people who have dropped out, for whatever reason. Universities already need to be thinking about how best to support young people whose education has been interrupted; supporting these extra young people on slightly less conventional paths should not be impossible.


Student number caps are normally a bad idea. But we don’t live in normal times. If needs must, a one-off cap might be a necessary measure to whack a particularly problematic mole. But we need to make sure that, in implementing it, we don’t hit disadvantaged applicants too.

This article originally appeared as a guest blog for the Higher Education Policy Institute.

Maria Neophytou was Director of Public Affairs and Acting CEO at Impetus, before joining the NSPCC as Director of Strategy and Knowledge in November 2020., Ben Gadsby is Head of Policy and Research at Impetus.

Find out more

CD&R Foundation Makes Grants to London Non-Profit Organisations

Awards made to Three Organisations in Partnership with Impetus
Read More

The National Tutoring Programme will fail young people unless it reforms

Changes to the flagship catch-up programme would transform the lives of the young people it was designed to reach.
Read More

Meet Tanya Curry - our new Interim CEO

Impetus CEO Eleanor Harrison begins her maternity leave this week. In the interim she will be passing the reins into the safe hands of Tanya Curry.
Read More