Widening participation won’t happen by magic

Tom Wellesley is Student Voice Coordinator at Northumbria SU

During last year’s Conservative Party Conference, the then higher education minister, Andrea Jenkyns, claimed that “the current system would rather our young people get a degree in Harry Potter studies than an apprenticeship in construction”.

In reality, no such degrees exist, with Jenkyns’ assertion based on a now inactive Education module at Durham University. However, Jenkyns’ mystical claim does reflect a view held by some surrounding “low-quality” courses – also known as “Mickey Mouse degrees”.

There are variations in graduate outcomes when comparing different degrees – HESA data reveals stark differences between subjects in various measurements, including “standard occupational classification”, “standard industrial classification”, and, of course, salaries.

Degree level data from Discover Uni shows clear differences in outcomes too. But to impose recruitment caps on courses that fail to “deliver positive outcomes”, as the government intends to do, is flawed – the plan is focused on a narrow view of the economic value of degrees, and will restrict opportunities for prospective students to reap the benefits of higher education.

What is “low-quality”?

Let’s re-cap the Government’s plan:

We will issue statutory guidance to the OfS setting out that it should impose recruitment limits where higher education provision, that does not deliver positive outcomes, is found to be in breach of OfS condition B3. This would mean that provision which does not deliver positive student outcomes may be subject to a recruitment limit. This would aim to limit the number of students who can be recruited onto that provision until the OfS is content that its quality concerns have been addressed.

Put simply, OfS will use condition B3 to assess whether courses are “low-quality”, applying recruitment caps for courses which it believes breach the condition. For those unfamiliar with B3, it requires higher education providers to reach minimum thresholds in terms of “positive outcomes”, which are:

  • Percentage of students continuing from first year into second year
  • Percentage of students completing their degrees, and
  • Percentage of students progressing to professional/managerial employment or further study within 15 months of completing their degrees.

Who is dropping out?

While positive outcome metrics matter, they are not the best way of assessing the quality of a course.

Take the “number of students continuing from first year into second year” (continuation rate).

OfS’ own statistics show that “student characteristics” significantly influence student continuation.

Playing around with the outcomes data dashboard reveals large gaps in continuation rates when looking at age, sex, care experience and ethnicity, to name just a few characteristics.

But there are many reasons for non-continuation which OfS data doesn’t capture. We know that students in financial hardship are more likely to drop out, and research from MillionPlus reveals that this is a particular problem for Black and mature students.

The most recent Student Academic Experience Survey shows that students are more likely to consider leaving their course if they are also in paid employment, something which we know has increased due to the current economic climate.

In addition, the survey states that care experienced students are more likely to drop out, with reasons including “lack of interaction with staff, physical health issues and general issues about the experience not being what they expected”.

So, while the B3 metrics imply that poor continuation rates mean a course is low-quality, the reality is that the reasons for student non-continuation are far more nuanced than that.

It’s not about the money, money, money

The debate around the “value” of higher education has often focused on the economic value of degrees, and has resulted in policy proposals such as the “plan to upskill Britain”, written by MPs Jonathan Gullis and Lia Nici, which calls for fewer young people to go to university –

Too many people attend university in the belief that they will graduate into a graduate-level job, with a salary to match, only to be disappointed.

While “too many” is a vague number, there is some truth in Gullis and Nici’s argument – some students struggle to progress into good jobs.

But, as with the B3 approach, their plan doesn’t engage with the reasons why students fail to progress after university. They’d do well to read the OfS data, which reveals gaps in “progression to professional/managerial employment or further study within 15 months of completing their degrees” when comparing student characteristics.

Notable gaps can be seen when looking at students’ sexual orientation, religion, and socioeconomic background, among other things. OfS acknowledges these issues in their new Equality of Opportunity Risk Register (EORR).

We’ve established that the reasons for students’ non-progression are more nuanced than the likes of Gullis, Nici and the Government would have you believe, but looking at this issue from a purely economic perspective glosses over the reasons why students choose to go to university.

Not everyone wants to earn loads of money – some want to go to university for other reasons. Polly Mackenzie sums this up brilliantly:

The pleasure of learning and meeting like-minded people. The cultivation of resilience, independence and a capacity for critical thought. The skills and knowledge nurtured at university help joy echo through a lifetime.

Why should politicians deny people the chance to have these experiences, just because some students’ aspirations don’t align with theirs?

Time to get into SHAPE

Putting the government’s ignorance of aspiration to one side, using graduate outcomes data is a narrow-minded way of assessing the economic value of degrees. The HESA data on graduate earnings is hardly surprising, with graduates in subjects such as medicine and veterinary sciences enjoying the highest salaries.

However, subjects lower down this table have a different type of value which is often overlooked and more difficult to quantify. Recent research by the British Academy shows that SHAPE graduates (Social Sciences, Humanities and Arts for People and the Economy) are equipped with skills such as communication, adaptability and analysis, giving them the tools for a ‘rapidly changing world’ and preparing them for a wide variety of careers.

We also know that the arts world is dominated by people from privileged backgrounds – James Blunt famously got into a spat with a Labour MP about this issue a few years ago. Yet the B3 approach would have fewer people studying these courses and do nothing to address the lack of diversity in our creative industries.

Of course, we want students to study good degrees and have successful careers, but let’s not define quality through narrow-minded metrics and recruitment caps. The government may see this approach as a “magic bullet” for social mobility, but it means students risk missing out on the chance of studying the degree that’s right for them.

If we’re serious about improving prospects for students from less privileged backgrounds, we need to work with them more closely to understand reasons for non-continuation and non-progression, so we can offer better support.

Or we can say “Avada Kedavra” to the widening participation agenda.

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