The UK government is going ahead with controversial plans to limit the number of students from England who can enrol at universities in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, rejecting opposition from the devolved administrations.
Education ministers from Scotland and Wales angrily denounced the move, which they said was designed to stop damaging competition for students among English universities but could instead destabilise their own institutions.
Michelle Donelan, the higher education minister for England, held meetings throughout the day with her counterparts from the devolved governments, but refused to back down on the policy.
Kirsty Williams, the Welsh education minister, said after meeting Donelan: “I disagree strongly with England’s approach on this matter.
“I respect decision-making in and for England, just as I do for the other governments in the UK. Quite simply, I expect the same respect from the minister. I will continue to consider my options.”
Richard Lochhead, Scotland’s higher education minister, said the plan was “deeply disappointing”. “It is completely unnecessary and could add further damage to the sector, given that around 10% of current enrolments are from England,” he said, and called on the UK government to work with the devolved administrations to find a solution.
Last year 26,700 students from England enrolled at a Scottish higher education institution, accounting for 10% of total enrolments. But just 9,205 Scottish students enrolled at English universities.
Scottish students studying in Scotland can apply to have their tuition fees paid for, but are charged in full if they study in England, Wales or Northern Ireland, whereas students from the rest of the UK must pay tuition fees if they study in Scotland.
The cap is intended to stop what the Department for Education regards as damaging competition for students between universities in England, who were seeking to recruit more UK students to replace the international students staying away because of the coronavirus outbreak. The cap applied in England would be each institution’s previous forecast intake, plus 5%.
Donelan did not address the complaints, but said after the meetings: “The measures seek to ensure students have the widest possible variety and most suitable places to study in the coming academic year, while avoiding harmful over-recruitment among providers, which could go against the interests of students and the sector.
“The controls will make adjustments to take account of offers already accepted before 1 June, and will make best use of taxpayer funding to support students.”
The details show that the UK government intends to enforce the cap – which would limit devolved universities to growth of 6.5% in students from England – by passing new legislation allowing it to deduct the amount of tuition paid to an offending university the following year.
The government in England is also to steer more student places towards high-performing universities, such as those in the Russell Group of leading research institutions, in an effort to restrict so-called “low quality” courses.
The DfE revealed that only a select group with the strongest graduate outcomes will be able to bid for bonus places from a pot of 5,000, including institutions with low drop-out rates and those with at least three-quarters of their graduates working in “high-skilled employment”.
An additional pot of 5,000 places for nursing, midwifery and other healthcare courses such as physiotherapy would also be open to bids, without restriction.