Faced with the threat of extinction by the SARTOR reforms, self-confessed 'middling' universities such as Nottingham Trent have resorted to cold hard cash to attract students to their BEng courses (see News). With civils undergraduates increasingly struggling with tuition fees, student loans and overdrafts, as well soil mechanics and structural analysis, it is a move with a good chance of succeeding.
Universities offering cash and other inducements such as computers are claiming that this is just the 'little boost' they need to attract enough students to keep BEng courses open. They fear a post-SARTOR polarisation between 'good' and 'bad' universities and hope the move will help preserve a middle tier which can soak up any overflow from the leading institutions.
But there will be many who view this approach as the start of a very long slippery slope. If the numbers applying for civils courses continue to decline and the IEng grade remains relatively unpopular, then the need to pull in students by any means necessary will continue to escalate.
Universities using significant financial incentives rather than mainly academic ones to attract students will, at best, muddy the waters. At worst the rug could be pulled out from under a decent civils department if a neighbouring institution of a 'lower standard' suddenly goes on buying spree. The quality of the academic environment in which UK civils students study could be diluted.
At present the focus is on the A-Level performance of the students attracted rather than on how that intake is achieved. It is difficult to see how the regulators - the Institution, Joint Board of Moderators etc - can take this into account.
Many would argue it is none of their business anyway - who is to say what constitutes unfair competition between universities in a free market economy?
The most sensible solution would be to remove the need to offer incentives but, short of scrapping SARTOR or launching a massively succesful promotion of the IEng grade, no short term solution seems available.
Students and employers must resolve to give thorough interrogation to the motives behind the incentives offered by universities.