Scottish and Welsh universities criticise UK cap on student numbers

Richard Adams and LibBrooks
Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/The Guardian

University leaders have reacted angrily to the UK government’s plan to control the number of students from England who can study in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, saying that it was punishing them for problems caused by the coronavirus outbreak in England.

The Department for Education in England is expected to confirm a cap on the number of undergraduates each university can recruit this autumn – limiting institutions to an increase of no more than 6.5% in the number of new students – in a bid to stop institutions poaching students from their rivals.

But universities and ministers in the devolved administrations said they have been shocked to learn that the DfE wants to impose the same limits on Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, despite higher education policy being devolved to individual governments.

Sally Mapstone, the vice-chancellor of the University of St Andrews, said: “There’s been no consultation about this with Scottish universities at all. When we first heard about it, it was a real shock to the sector, it was a surprise to government and to the funding councils. We feel we’ve been completely blindsided by this.”

Mapstone said the decision by the UK government had come at “an incredibly difficult time for student recruitment”, with uncertainty over the number of students attending higher education next year.

Some universities are forecasting that the number of international students enrolling in September could drop by 50% in the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic, leaving holes that some have aggressively tried to fill with UK students.

“What’s really galling is that the student number controls were in part brought in because of unacceptable and unscrupulous behaviour by a number of English universities,” Mapstone said.

“But there is no evidence whatsoever that Scottish universities have behaved badly. We were not in that group, so to effectively penalise us for something that stems in part from behaviour south of the border seems inappropriate.”

Close to 18,000 students from England travel to Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland each year to start undergraduate degrees. Welsh universities are particularly popular with English students, with the University of Cardiff admitting nearly 60% of its undergraduates from across the border.

Colin Riordan, the vice-chancellor of Cardiff, said: “If there is any intention to limit the numbers of English students that can study in Wales, that would be a real problem and it just does not make any sense.”

Riordan said Cardiff and other universities have already sent out offers to their applicants and many would have already accepted university places.

“That puts us in a contractual position with them, so I don’t know how that would pan out. What I’m hoping is that this is some sort of mix-up that hasn’t been thought through, or it’s some sort of mistake that can be resolved,” Riordan said.

Michelle Donelan, the universities minister for England, is to hold a further meeting with her counterparts on Monday, with further details to be announced next week, according to the DfE.

Anton Muscatell, the vice-chancellor of the University of Glasgow, said: “If an agreement is reached between the governments, it is important that Scottish institutions are treated fairly, on similar terms to English institutions.”

Related: Universities are on the brink of crisis. Coronavirus may tip them over the edge

Last academic year around 5,000 English students started their first degrees in Scotland, with close to 2,000 going to the University of Edinburgh alone. Edinburgh declined to comment on the student numbers cap extension.

Alastair Sim, the director of the Universities Scotland group, described the new policy as “a late and low blow” and said: “The UK government’s package of measures for UK universities in early May was England-only in the financial support it offered but it now seems to be UK-wide when it comes to the controls. This is unacceptable.”

Emma Hardy, Labour’s shadow minister for universities, said the UK government needed to ensure the health of the sector in the coronavirus aftermath.

“There is a need for stability in the system and temporary number controls. However, any decision on how this is implemented must be done in conjunction with both the Welsh and Scottish governments,” Hardy said.