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When a university closes down, what happens to its students?

There isn't a regulator to keep universities from going bust. Source: Shutterstock

Many in the UK could find themselves asking these questions from this year on.

As there is no longer a safety net against university closures, experts warn that some universities with falling enrollment could be in danger of shutting down.

According to The Guardian, figures from UCAS reveal that institutions such as London Metropolitan University, the University of Cumbria, Kingston University and the University of Wolverhampton have seen major losses in the number of 18-year-olds enrolling there for the past five years. Enrollment at these universities has been shrinking year on year.

Experts fear for what the future holds for such universities as the UK now does not have a government body with a clear remit to predict or prevent a university failure.

Speaking to The Guardian, Colin Riordan, the vice-chancellor of Cardiff University said: “To my knowledge we haven’t been in a position in living memory where it seems likely that established universities could find themselves in an unsustainable position and having no option but to close.”

Under the Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce), the predecessor to the new regulator Office for Students (OfS), universities were prevented from failing. Riordan said:

“It wasn’t just a matter of bailing institutions out, it was about ongoing scrutiny and oversight and becoming involved in the day-to-day affairs of the university if necessary. All those safeguards have now gone in England.”

Now, under the OfS, it is now possible for universities to close shop. Its terms state that all universities should have a pre-planned “exit strategy” for looking after their students in the event of closure.

“The Office for Students has set its stall out very clearly and it is not there to ensure the sector’s health.”

A university closing down is expected to be fraught with many repercussions. And not just to students and faculty.

Tim Fanning, the associate director at Regeneris, an economic development consultancy that works closely with universities, says that losing a university in a less prosperous area could deliver “a nasty economic shock” as they employ thousands and not just academics. Local communities also depend on spending by students, staff, visitors and the university itself.

“Would Theresa May make the case that a failed university is unfortunate for those concerned, but ultimately all part of the market helping to drive up overall quality and value for money?” he asks.

London Metropolitan University is seeing the biggest drop in enrollments by 18-year-olds, UCAS data reveals. It has lost 53 percent acceptances from this cohort since 2012.

Despite this, and a history of Home Office revoking its license in 2012, a spokesperson said that it is in a “strong position” financially and that 18-year-olds aren’t its major focus as most of their students are over 21.

At the University of Cumbria, enrollments are down 36 percent since 2012. Nursing and teaching, its two key training areas, suffers from the falling interest seen nationwide in both subjects.

Vice-chancellor Julie Mennell says they are “well placed” to respond to “both the challenges and opportunities, and they have met their student targets this year.

UCAS statistics show acceptances to Kingston University are down 30 percent in the last five years. A spokesperson said the university reduced its recruitment target last year in line with its “refocused course portfolio” and is still a “popular choice”.

The University of Wolverhampton saw similar losses as well, but Anthea Gregory, its deputy vice-chancellor said it is doing well in recruiting part-time students, and with its degree apprenticeship programmes.

“The Black Country Conurbation has a high proportion of adults without any qualifications and it is our mission and role to enhance people’s life chances and upskill the workforce,” Gregory said.

All of these universities say many of their students are not included in UCAS’s data as they are older.

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