Expanding the Sorting Hat

Expanding the Sorting Hat
Date4th May 2021AuthorNick HillmanCategoriesPolicy and News


As first-in-family students know best of all, the higher education admissions process can seem complicated. Making up to five choices from tens of thousands of options months before you are due to start higher education is not easy. Moreover, it is often by far the most significant decision that a young person has had to make up to that point in their lives.

So it is important to remember that the underlying purpose of the higher education admissions system is actually very simple. It is to find the right fit between a person and a place. The complexity comes from the fact that there are so many different options, that everyone is different and that young people are still changing fast when they apply.

The process itself reminds me of the Sorting Hat in the Harry Potter stories, which matches new pupils to the different houses at Hogwarts. Even with magic powers, the Sorting Hat does not find its job easy – after all, it nearly placed its most famous pupil in Slytherin before Potter himself persuaded the Hat to put him in Gryffindor.

Higher education admissions are topical partly because, a decade on from the last major review of higher education admissions, the whole issue is now up in the air once more. This time, the Government, Universities UK and UCAS are among those calling for a new admissions system, proving yet again that education policy is cyclical rather than linear.

Most of the focus is on the technical details but, contrary to much public policy, the details of university admissions are relatively unimportant. The crucial moving piece is not whether young people apply before or after getting their exam results, nor whether universities send out their offers before or after pupils’ grades come out (even though my organisation, the Higher Education Policy Institute or HEPI, has written lots about these options).

The crucial moving piece is, simply, the total number of places available. If the cake is too small to go around, it doesn’t matter what admissions system you use: some people with bags of potential will lose out.

That is what used to happen. My first job in higher education policy, back in 2007/08, was to calculate how many people had applied to higher education but were shut out from it. The answer was hundreds of thousands. In 2010, the BBC website ran a piece with the headline, ‘209,000 university hopefuls miss out on degree places’.

I remain proud to have worked on the Coalition’s increase in tuition fees to £9,000 not so much because it protected universities’ incomes (though it did) but more because it enabled the removal of student number caps in England. In the great tradition of the Robbins Report of 1963, we were able to ensure all qualified applicants with potential could be let in.

The current financial pressures are leading many people to consider imposing new student number caps – either by the front door or else by the back door, for example via minimum entry criteria. The overarching objective is to push people towards other options instead.

The specific goal is to have more people doing Level 4 and Level 5 courses, which used to be known pejoratively as ‘sub-degree’, and fewer people undertaking Level 6 courses, which are full honours degrees. Some policymakers hope it is possible to boost FE colleges, save money and send a warning shot to universities, the supposed custodians of wokeness, all at the same time.

On the other hand, others have persuasively argued you cannot have too much education. A former Minister for Universities, the Rt Hon. the Lord Willetts, recently wrote ‘the concept of over-education [is] repellent’.

Moreover, what is bad for individuals tends to be bad for society and the economy. It may well be true that employers want more job applicants with Level 4 and Level 5 qualifications. But on close inspection, it turns out this is not because there are too many graduates; it is because there are too many people who have left formal education with much lower qualifications (if any).

Sadly, as the Chief Executive of the LSBU Group (which includes higher, further and school education) wrote in a recent HEPI report, ‘the UK has one of the lowest levels of literacy and numeracy among young people in the developed world.’ It would be bizarre to think you could fix that problem by sending fewer people to university.

If we ever doubted the appeal of higher education, COVID should surely put that right. This time last year, the consensus was that the pandemic would discourage people from enrolling in higher education. Ministers were so worried there would not be enough students to go around that they (briefly) reimposed student number caps on each university to ensure the pain of any contraction was shared equally across the sector.

In the event, demand from young school leavers was unprecedented as the pandemic meant other options (like gap years or entering the labour market at 18) became harder. It would be just as ridiculous to reimpose the hated old student number controls now as it would be to limit access to Year 12 and Year 13.

Indeed, given the coming big increase in the number of 18-year olds, we should be preparing for further expansion. I have even floated the idea of a new 70% target for higher education participation. It sounds radically progressive to some ears and has been roundly condemned. But HEPI has conservatively forecast that, on existing trends alone, there will be an extra 358,000 young full-time higher education students in England by 2035.

When 97% of mothers want their children to go to university, the issue is not whether expansion will happen. Rather, it is whether we prepare for that expansion now or whether we respond in an ad hoc make-do-and-mend fashion later on.

Nick Hillman has been the Director of HEPI since 2014. Previously, he has worked as a teacher and in politics.

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