Monday, 1 August 2011

Incentives for AAB applicants

I don't really understand news values. The idea that students with AAB grades might get financial incentives to attend certain universities is all over the web and papers today (see here, here, here,  here and here, just for example) although this was clearly and centrally part of the White Paper from the start. Government wants institutions to compete for these applicants, and it is natural that some will compete on service and others on price.

What is sufficiently interesting is the identity of the institutions identified as competing on price. I've seen references to Kent and Essex. If you look at the HEFCE data, then Kent has 10% AAB students, and Essex 8% (looking at UK-domiciled only, for convenience). As AAB entrants are a relatively small proportion of their intake, giving discounts may not be financially crippling for them, whereas for institutions higher up the scale (say SOAS at 57% AAB), substantial discounts might be unaffordable. I find it quite startling that institutions like Essex and Kent now seem to find themselves below the squeezed middle, and able to play for growth in their AAB numbers in consequence.

What isn't clear from the data available to me are the proportion of AABs at these two institutions who actually have AAB at A-level, as opposed to the other equivalent qualifications defined by HEFCE. I suspect that as the proportion of 'AABs' decreases, the proportion of true AABs as opposed to equivalents also decreases. Universities like Edge Hill or the University of East London don't have 7% of their home-domiciled students with AAB at A-level as suggested by HEFCE's data. These people are far more likely to be graduates, or some other equivalent group defined by HEFCE. This matters because it is the 'true AABs' - young, mobile, highly-qualified applicants, who might be tempted away by a better deal at another institution. I think most people would assume that Essex has far more such students than UEL, and is far more likely to succeed in tempting some more of them from SOAS, York and such places where they currently cluster. The HEFCE data don't tell us for sure.  

The second question is how sustainable the price-competition approach will prove to be. At the moment, Kent and Essex have few AABs and substantial core numbers, so they need to engage in price competition only for a minor part of their numbers. If the AAB-boundary moves downwards (as Government intends, if it feels brave enough), then more and more of Essex's and Kent's numbers will become open to competition, whilst Edge Hill and UEL remain largely immune. In this context, price competition might start to look like a dicey prospect. But of course none of us know how quickly that AAB threshold will move down, still less how far.

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