The UK government has announced a package of measures to protect students and the higher education sector from the impact of Covid-19, including admissions caps and funding.
As part of the measures, temporary student number controls will be used to stabilize admissions and £100m of government funding will be brought forward to protect vital research.
The government will also bring forward £2.6bn of forecast tuition fee payments for universities, to tackle a potential funding shortfall caused by the virus.
Other sources of funding for providers will include business loan support schemes – which the Office for Students, estimates could be worth at least £700m to the sector.
To prevent fears of a scramble for September 2020 applicants, competition around admissions will be tackled by the OfS, which is consulting on a new regulatory condition to stop universities and colleges from using exploitative admissions practices.
A penalty of £500K could be handed to any institutions found to be in breach of temporary conditions applied.
Breaches would include universities converting existing conditional offers to unconditional, lowering academic or language requirements for international applicants, offering incentives for students to accept offers, and engaging in aggressive marketing activity designed to attract students away from other choices.
This new regulatory condition would be in force for up to one year – and would expire at that stage unless it was actively renewed.
Government education secretary, Gavin Williamson, underlined, “We are committed to supporting our world-class universities and students through this unprecedented challenging time” – an acknowledgment of UUK’s request for support and measures to mitigate “volatility” in the admissions process.
He continued, “We are putting measures in place to help protect students and staff from the impact of coronavirus.
“I know this is an unsettling time for all involved, and we are working tirelessly with the sector to do everything we can to stabilize admissions and protect a vital part of our country’s economy and society.
“I am very grateful to universities for their innovation and dedication in their frontline response at this time.”
As part of the plans, which have been drafted in consultation with the HE sector, English higher education providers will be able to recruit full-time undergraduate UK and EU students for 2020/21 up to a temporary set level.
This admissions cap will be based on their forecasts for the next academic year, plus an additional 5%. The government will control these numbers through the student finance system.
The government will also have the discretion to allocate an additional 10,000 places, with 5,000 ring-fenced for nursing, midwifery or allied health courses to support the country’s vital public services. Admissions caps have not been used in the UK since 2016.
Science Minister Amanda Solloway announced that £100m of Quality-related research funding will be brought forward to this academic year to ensure research activities can continue during the crisis.
“The UK is home to some of the world’s leading scientists and researchers. From the study of disease to vaccine development, their work has already proved itself to be invaluable to our response to coronavirus,” she said.
“This £100 million we are bringing forward will provide immediate help to ensure the excellent research taking place in our universities continues throughout this period of uncertainty.”
An estimated £2.6bn of tuition fee payments will be brought forward to help universities better manage financial risks over the autumn, including taking steps to improve efficiencies and manage their finances in order to avoid cash flow problems further ahead.
Earlier this month Universities UK proposed a package of measures to the government, saying that there was a significant risk that the UK’s HE sector and noting that international fee income was worth the UK£6.9bn in 2020/21.
“The package of interventions outlined today indicates a welcome recognition from the government of the central role that universities will play in the recovery of the economy and communities and the urgent need to provide support for universities to weather the severe financial storm created by Covid-19,” said UUK president, Julia Buckingham.
“It is clear the government has listened to the concerns raised and has drawn from the suggestions that the sector has made.”
Responding to concerns around admissions practices that undermine student interests and stability of higher education, the OfS warned that it could impose substantial financial penalties on universities and colleges that change their admissions strategies because of financial pressures related to the coronavirus pandemic.
Penalties would be enforced using a new temporary condition for registered higher education providers in England, which universities would need to meet on an ongoing basis to remain registered with the OfS.
Any university found to break the rules, could be fined up to – or in some cases beyond – £500,000 per breach.
“During the coronavirus crisis, all organizations will be judged by how they demonstrate a sense of wider social responsibility, and this is as true of universities and colleges as anyone else,” said Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of the OfS.
“We are confident that universities and colleges will want to do right by their students and the wider community in these difficult circumstances.
“This new temporary regulatory condition is designed to reinforce the socially responsible approach that so many in the sector have already shown.”
The question of how the measures will be used to support Scottish universities was noted by the government. Universities Scotland said that the announcement is unlikely to deliver financial support on the scale needed.
“Scotland’s universities are going to depend on both Scottish and UK Governments agreeing a shared approach to ensure that appropriate financial support is targeted at a level that will help them navigate this crisis and be fit to support both Scotland and the UK’s post-pandemic recovery,” said Andrea Nolan, convener of Universities Scotland.
Other measures announced by the government include a new “proactive and personalized” UCAS Clearing process this summer and financial help for students including the use of existing funds, totaling £46m across April and May.
Groups will be set up by ministers to consider how best to respond to the challenges universities face on research as a result of Covid-19 and how to ensure universities continue to attract international students.
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