Why Student Number Control Matters: UK HE Admissions Policy and You

  Share by Email   Print this article   More sharing options  

I’m not an admissions tutor – you might think to yourself – so why bother understanding the ins and outs of admissions? That’s up to other people! 

It’s true that every university has a central admissions unit, staffed by people whose job it is to ensure the smooth running of the application process. What’s more, every department or school probably has at least one designated admissions tutor, drawn from the academic body, to adjudicate on applications, oversee open days, liaise with university marketing, and negotiate with central admissions on setting targets for individual programmes.

But consider the larger picture.

The last two years have seen the largest single change for years to the way in which UK higher education is funded. In 2011 the UK government cut direct funding for teaching by 80%, transferring that cost to students in the form of fees (currently around 9K per annum). In 2012 government policy on the control of student numbers also changed, as I will discuss below.

The net effect of this has been that admissions—the task of recruiting suitably qualified learners—has become a quasi-open market game, with high stakes for the future of universities and programmes, and even individual staff.

Recent changes

Until 2012, all universities in the UK were allocated a set number of undergraduate places, or quota, funded by government, under a system known as Student Number Control (hereafter, SNC). Internal allocation of quota to programmes was a matter for each individual university. Targets for each programme were determined on the basis of the previous patterns of recruitment, and, since each place was fully funded by government, universities were fined for over-recruiting. Tariffs (A-level or equivalent) were determined entirely by each university (this remains the case).

As of 2012, however, SNC was removed for applicants with AAB grades or higher at ‘A’-level or equivalent. This meant that for the first time there was no theoretical limit on the number of AAB+ students that could be recruited by a given university. In effect, this change in policy created an open market for this category of students. And in 2013 this potential market expanded when the SNC bar was further lowered, to ABB grades. 

Universities still have SNC (currently for students with BCC and below). Quota for this pool, however, has reduced with the lowering of the SNC bar, so the number of places on the closed or ‘regulated’ market has declined.


The consequences of these changes for the sector overall are still unclear. Anecdotal evidence, however, suggests that in 2012 the pool of applicants falling outside SNC may have been smaller than anticipated. This may have been a result of the impact of the threefold increase in fees. It may also have been because of an unanticipated decline in the number of students achieving A and A* results in 2012, leaving universities with fewer applicants at that level to compete for.

What this means to individual institutions, and programmes, is even harder to determine.

Institutions that traditionally look to recruit high-achieving students (i.e. those outside SNC) may largely be unaffected, although they will have to compete more fiercely if the pool continues to diminish.

Similarly, institutions that look to recruit students with lower grades may continue comfortably to operate within SNC itself—although they, too, will have to keep an eye on what appears to be a trend towards a shrinking of the SNC quota, and potentially, a removal of SNC altogether.

But it is those institutions—or within institutions, those programmes—that fall in between who may have to look to their laurels. Such programmes may have found themselves being ranked in a new internal market within their institution, whereby the proportion of SNC to non-SNC recruitment becomes a key indicator in internal institutional strategies.

In short, depending on your institution’s overall situation in the HE field, the number of students your department recruits under SNC may become a central issue in discussions about the future of programmes or even units.

Be part of the discussion

So, even if you are not involved directly in admissions, your future as an HE professional is bound up with the way in which your department recruits in an increasingly open market. And as I have discussed here, your role as an academic goes far beyond teaching and research.

For both these reasons, you need to understand these changes and their implications so that you can be part of the general discussion about recruitment. It is up to you to stay informed about this part of the university process as it moves into the uncharted waters of the open market. Remember: in this era of dramatically changed economic priorities, the future of your department may rest on the success of your recruitment strategies. 

Share this article:

  Share by Email   Print this article   More sharing options  

What do you think about this article? Email your thoughts and feedback to us

Connect with us