At the start of every academic year, Lancaster University is given a to-do list by the University Senate. The document outlines in the most general terms where they would like to be in 12 months’ time. At the very top of the list for 2014/5 is: “Achieve a top 10 UK ranking.” Below that: “Increase research grant income by 10%.” Our third priority is to regain a place in the top 10 National Student Survey results, and our fourth priority is to increase undergraduate intake to 3,500 a year. I have come to realise that these proposals aren’t so much individual targets as they are phases of one master plan.
Higher education has undergone a lot of changes in the last few years, forcing University management to reconsider their desires over and over again. In the end, they decided that they want cred. And not just any old kind of cred. They want cold stone, long gowns, and tourists flocking down the Spine every morning to take a photo of the library. In other words, they want to be Oxbridge.
The moment that made up the minds of most VCs came in 2012, when ministers decided to increase the number of students for whom universities could reserve unlimited places. The threshold was lowered from students who got AAB or higher at A-level to students who got ABB. In practice, the government had given British universities space for thousands of new customers each year. That was great news for prestigious universities that get up to a dozen suitors per place, but awful news for the more everyday universities relying on others’ rejects (arguably like Lancaster). Mediocre institutions around the country faced a choice: either sit tight and hope for the best, or pander to the ABB students like never before. Lancaster got pandering.
This is the reasoning behind the University’s fourth priority, to increase student intake. Of course, I can understand why management would want to act fast. The hazard of losing top-end undergraduates is compounded by the fact that Lancaster is about to finish a number of building projects, which could end up half empty, and that this year saw 2,600 fewer A-level students with ABB or above. However, if the University is serious about fighting UCAS competitors for qualified students, it may have to resort to dirty tactics.
Two rather underhanded measures are already in place. One is handing out discounts, or ‘academic scholarships’, to low-income students with a strong academic history, rather than simply to low-income students. Another tactic is promising to drop entry standards for students predicted to receive high grades if they make Lancaster their firm choice. Deputy VC Andrew Atherton may have hinted that there was more of this to come when he complained to SCAN that high entry standards were restricting undergraduate numbers. This trick could not only land the University with a bunch of underqualified students in subjects that require an A-level background, but also spoil Lancaster’s record on entry standards in the Guardian league tables.
A top 10 position in the UK league tables – with a bit of help from our National Student Survey results and our research spend per head – is another way of snaring the ABB students. When I was scouring UCAS for a course, my teachers would always show their best pupils to the very heights of the rankings, as a movie trailer might show only the most ambitious shots of a film. Don’t get me wrong, I would love nothing more than for Lancaster to knock Surrey out of its place as the baby of the league, but not at the cost of our identity.
The real giveaway is Lancaster’s new logo. Any more blatant an imitation of the ancient universities and we’d have a trademark infringement on our hands. It’s no defence that our new logo is the arms of the University. Such a traditional image just doesn’t sit right with Lancaster: our best buildings are mostly transparent and the vast majority of our alumni are alive right now. We made a name for ourselves as a friendly, forward-thinking university, and we were unique for that. More importantly, let’s hope that University management’s focus on the ABB market does not blind us to the potential of students who were not so lucky in their A-levels or, given that many other qualifications don’t measure up to them on equivalence charts, students who studied no A-levels in the first place. In times like these, we should be playing to our strengths, not to the strengths of Oxbridge.