The UK government has announced a “crackdown” on “poor-quality” degrees, but some are calling “shortsighted” while others point out implications for international students and creative arts graduates.
Higher education regulator in England, the Office for Students, will be asked to limit the number of students universities can recruit onto courses that are failing to deliver “good outcomes” for students, the UK government has announced.
“The UK is home to some of the best universities in the world and studying for a degree can be immensely rewarding,” said UK prime minister Rishi Sunak.
“But too many young people are being sold a false dream and end up doing a poor-quality course at the taxpayers’ expense that doesn’t offer the prospect of a decent job at the end of it.”
Minimum performance thresholds on course continuation, progression and completion are already in place and regulated by the OfS.
“The vast majority of courses exceed these thresholds, so any measures by government need to be targeted and proportionate, and not a sledgehammer to crack a nut,” said Steve West, president of Universities UK, while highlighting that the UK has the highest completion rate in the OECD at bachelor’s level.
“Overall satisfaction rates remain high.”
However, the UK government wants more to be done to “make the system fairer” for students and also taxpayers who it said “make a huge investment in higher education and are liable for billions of pounds in unrecovered tuition fees if graduate earnings are low”.
Too many students are being sold a university education that won’t get them a decent job at the end of it.
So I’m cracking down on rip-off degrees and boosting apprenticeships to ensure students get the best deal possible.
Widening access. Boosting jobs. Growing the economy.
— Rishi Sunak (@RishiSunak) July 17, 2023
Susan Lapworth, OfS chief executive, agreed that it is important that the regulator can “intervene to protect the interests of students and taxpayers”.
Meanwhile, education secretary Gillian Keegan said that the new measures will “crack down on higher education providers that continue to offer poor quality courses and send a clear signal that we will not allow students to be sold a false promise”.
The impact of the announcement for international students is yet to be determined within the context of the OfS powers, Anne Marie Graham, chief executive, UKCISA, told The PIE
“It is likely to impact domestic students more than international students, though could potentially limit choice for international students who want to study courses in certain sectors if numbers are capped on those courses, and therefore more competitive.”
The UK, via HESA, recently changed the way it collects information on international graduate outcomes, by eliminating surveying international graduates by telephone. This change in methodology means that the response rate has fallen significantly, said Graham.
“As a result, it makes it much more difficult to calculate the employment outcomes for our international graduates who move on to work overseas in their home country or a third country. It’s essential that this methodology is reviewed urgently.”
There has long been contention in the sector surrounding what constitutes as a “low-quality degree”.
Graham believes that if the quality of a degree is calculated using earnings, this would penalise courses with graduates who go into roles in lower paid but highly-skilled sectors such as social work, healthcare and the creative industries, as well those who go on to work in countries where the overall wage base is lower.
“Viewing university through a purely economic lens underestimates its value not only to the people who go there but to society as a whole,” said Polly Mackenzie, chief social purpose officer at the University of the Arts.
In a recent HEPI blog, Mackenzie argued that the graduate outcome survey – used by the government to gauge the success of students 15 months after graduating – is a “blunt instrument” and one which is not effective in measuring the success of creative graduates.
“Sculptors, painters, film producers, performers, designers; graduates like these tend not to be highly paid — early on, at least — but they make life more interesting and enjoyable for millions,” said Mackenzie.
The ‘low-value’ courses of today may have a higher value tomorrow
“The ‘low-value’ courses of today may have a higher value tomorrow and vice versa — past performance is no guarantee of future returns. To build a truly innovative economy, politicians must be open minded about the potential of a broad range of disciplines.”
Almost three in 10 graduates do not progress onto highly-skilled jobs or further study 15 months after graduating, according to the OfS, however some also argue progress onto highly-skilled jobs is an entirely different task for international students, with varying obstacles.
“Many international students and dependents who have studied in the UK face significant challenges when seeking employment. Despite their qualifications and skills, they often find that companies prioritise candidates with UK experience,” said Abhiny Shiny James Allil, an Indian master’s student studying in the UK, who addressed Sunak in a post on LinkedIn.
“This bias against individuals from different countries devalues their expertise and prevents them from utilising their education effectively.”
Meanwhile, the National Union of Students has spoken out strongly against the government’s plans, warning that the decision would affect students from disadvantaged backgrounds the most.
“This is a tired and shortsighted policy by a Prime Minister and government long out of ideas,” NUS UK vice president for higher education, Chloe Field, said.
“Instead of imposing arbitrary caps, the government should focus on enhancing the quality of education across all disciplines and ensuring that students receive relevant and up-to-date knowledge and skills,” Field continued.
“If the government had students’ interests at heart, it would act to remove the barriers to accessing education – including by increasing cost -of-living support – rather than putting yet more barriers in place.”
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