Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

Hey there higher education policy follower. I’ve had an idea!

If a course ends up not delivering the salary benefits that students were hoping for, we could give them a refund.

Given most of them borrow the money to pay tuition fees, we could do it by writing off the remainder of their loan after say, oh I don’t know, 30 years.

And to reduce taxpayers’ exposure and sift properly between luck, chance and circumstance on the one hand, and genuine low-quality on the other, we could introduce a regulatory system (paid for by students) designed to measure outcomes and identify if they’re Gold, Bronze, Silver or “require improvement”. And then deliver the improvement.

You might have imagined that fourteen years of failing to find a viable solution to a problem might have caused someone in the Conservative Party to wonder whether the problem was really there at all.

But we are where we are. Not a single government minister has mentioned TEF since the sector got its mutant, Gremlins 2-style subject version killed off a couple of years ago. That’s almost certainly because TEF’s new scoring system has provided the wrong answer. How can not a single university in the country “require improvement” when 13 per cent of students are on “rip-off degrees”?

And on that money back if the quality’s not there thing, thanks to the government’s reforms to student loan terms, we’ve gone from about 50p in the pound not coming back in to 18p – or even less depending on which economist firm you listen to. They killed the refunds themselves.

Instead, the hot new take is that students won’t be able to enrol onto a “rip-off” degree to start with. So we should think about what they might do instead.

Everyone’s got their chains to break

Believe it or not, the Conservatives’ plan to stop students from being sold a “false dream” does include some accounting for behavioural effects.

Making up that 13 per cent of students who will now be “protected” is 6.5 per cent who will instead do an apprenticeship, 3.25 per cent will go onto a better, higher quality course, and 3.25 per cent will go straight into employment.

The suspiciously round numbers do suggest that the modelling has benefitted from the calling of the election killing off Rishi Sunak’s bid to ban fag packets.

But in fact, there is something resembling this sort of modelling already that suggests that he’s not far off.

2023’s iteration of the HEPI/Advance HE Student Academic Experience Survey suggests that if they had their time again, 7 per cent would have chosen an apprenticeship, and 5 per cent would have chosen to get a job or do something else outside higher education.

The problem is partly that there’s little chance that the 13 per cent caught by Sunak’s B3 course cull would match the courses and providers covered by students’ 13 per cent.

In the survey, six per cent would have deferred study to a year later. Maybe the National Service plan could be expanded to hit that metric.

But the bigger issue for the sector is that while Sunak has 3.25 per cent going onto do a different course, the SAES has just shy of a quarter wishing they had.

And if the story of higher education regulation tells us anything, it’s that the problems the sector pretends aren’t there catch up with it eventually – usually in the form of blunt regulation.

So understanding both why students express that regret, and what it is that they value in a course, should matter.

Were you born to resist

The good news is that we have pretty good evidence on what students regard as a low-value course. And the surprising source for said evidence is the Office for Students itself.

Not that it’s ever drawn on said evidence.

Back when OfS consisted of Nicola Dandridge and a PA hot-desking at HEFCE in the transition period between funding council and student interests regulator, research was commissioned to explore value from the student perspective.

I should know. I led it.


It sought to discern whether students felt they were receiving value for money, whether student perceptions of value evolved as they transitioned from school or college to higher education and into work, and to determine what providers and their regulator could do to help improve the value students perceive they are getting from the investment they make in higher education.

It found a significant divergence in satisfaction levels based on the type of institution attended, with students from newer and smaller universities expressing less satisfaction compared to those from larger, research-intensive institutions. It also found that students’ socio-economic backgrounds play a role in their perceptions – with those from private schools or non-UK backgrounds more likely to view their investment as good value.

On the balance between outputs and outcomes, quality of teaching was deemed the most crucial factor, followed by access to resources and fair assessment. Outcomes like employment prospects and earnings potential, while on the list, were much less critical than the quality of the experience itself.

Students called for greater transparency in how their fees were spent and better preparation of students for the costs associated with their education. They expressed a desire for detailed breakdowns of fee expenditures and comparison tools to evaluate the value offered by different courses and institutions.

And they had concerns about cross-subsidies, unexpected charges, and the adequacy of information regarding costs – which played a big role in determining students’ perceptions of value.

All of the things they valued cost money. And so in other words, and entirely unsurprisingly, they wanted the maximum amount possible spent on them and their educational experience.

And that’s where all the ironies kick in.

You gave me something that I didn’t have

When they make their investment of time, and in most cases delayed investment of money, into HE, students tend to accept that some of the things they’re buying are shared.

Yet right now, more of what they share is being rationed. More students and dwindling resources mean fewer places to sit, less licences for the software they need, curtailed opening hours for the spaces they need and profiteering in the only cafe on campus.

They also tend to accept that some students will place more demand on some things than others. But as the pressure builds on access regulation, or the need to invest in STEM leaves their own building tatty and cold, their willingness to accept those cross-subsidies reduces. Especially when they know that the essay they spent hours on was perfunctorily marked in a matter of minutes.

Their ability to derive value depends on having the resources to do so. But as their maintenance loan creeps up slower than inflation or as they watch their savings dwindle on the currency markets, they just don’t have the money – or if they do scrape the money via employment, the time – to make the most of it all.

They do their best, but they know that they could do better. Some staff understand, others blame and berate. Everyone they meet in their provider is doing their best too, but they also mutter that they could do better. Some students understand, some blame and berate. At the muddling through stage of the boom and bust of HE funding, “will that do?” becomes the most important question for everyone.

It would be fine if they were getting what they’d been promised. But add up the fact that they have neither the time nor money to travel to campus to experience it with the fact that even if they did it’s all being reduced and cut in comparison to the prospectus with impunity, and you end up with deepening levels of regret. Or a “rip-off degree”, if you will.

I was too weak to give in

I have a confession to make. I was working at NUS when home undergraduate tuition fees were put up to £9,000 in England. At the time, we could have pointed out that fees were only really going up by just over £1,000 when you took into account the expected average subsidy in the scheme.

But we chose not to – partly because the subsidy was only going to be felt 30 years later, and only then if you were economically unsuccessful. So we went with “they’re tripling tuition fees”. We caused there to be a focus on the sticker price.

We knew then that not everyone would get £9k spent on them (most more, some less) and that not everyone would pay £9k in the long term (some more, most less). But at least the tolerance bands were… tolerable.

Today, a student seeking value by looking for a provider and course where the maximum is spent on them would be daft to look at what’s on offer in a prospectus or at an open day, because it could well be cut by the time they arrive. Nobody’s going to stop that.

If it is on offer by the time they arrive, it’ll almost certainly be beset with industrial action that nobody seems to be able to prevent yet whose legal teams pretend was an uncontrollable surprise to justify not shelling out on refunds. Nobody’s going to stop that.

They could use those league table stats to look at what’s spent on each student. But the cross-subsidies these days are so extreme that it’s perfectly possible that only a fraction of that metric will benefit them. Nobody’s going to make providers actually tell students where the money goes at anything like the granularity required.

Students could look at prior performance in the NSS, or in the graduate outcomes survey – but both are becoming deeply faulty ways of predicting future outcomes. Nobody has a way to fix that because we’ve come to kill off the idea that universities take time to change.

Even the most ardent de-marketisation types accept that we’re not going to allocate students to courses at providers against their will, or without some degree of choice input. Yet students have pretty much nothing on which to base their choice other than vibes, the weather on the day and “esteem”. Are they in the Russell Group? Was the coffee good? Was at least one of the dons sufficiently eccentric?

So students are screwed, basically. Because other than shutting down some courses, the government has literally no plan whatsoever to tackle the 42 per cent of students who wouldn’t have made the same choice again – and because the fees they pay bear pretty much no relation whatsoever to the experience they’ll go on to get.

But I can’t choose

If the Conservatives really cared about the students they claim to be “protecting”, they would of course slam the pessimists. They have an altogether bleaker view of higher education. They argue that university is inappropriate for many students, that student numbers should be significantly reduced and that students should pursue other types of post-18 education.

The pessimists’ desire to improve alternatives to university is laudable. But post-18 education is not a zero-sum game, where to improve further education we must restrict and ration higher education to a privileged few – the aim should be that both are excellent, and that students should have reliable information to allow them to make the choice that is right for them.

The pessimists’ broader charge against higher education is weak. And anyway, the pursuit of knowledge is the hallmark of a civilised society and for many people a sufficient end for the higher education system in and of itself.

That the above three paragraphs are lifted from a speech from former universities minister Jo Johnson from 2017 – on the occasion of the creation of the Office for Students, no less – almost says it all.

In the speech, a contrast was being drawn – between the pessimists to the right of him, the statists to the left of him, and him – the reasonable student-choice-in-a-market man whose Willetts-esque plan would save the sector.

It didn’t work. Partly because the policy design was poor, partly because sector interests ran rings around some of its student interest facets, partly because the fiscal illusion is gone, and partly because outside of access and participation, his regulator has performed so poorly.

But for me it mainly didn’t work for the same reason that both the statists’ prescriptions and the pessimist’s endless crackdowns wouldn’t work either. It failed to centre the student interest.

I swear I’ll never give in

It’s not that hard to bring down those levels of regret. First, you fight for a transitional funding period for the sector that slowly allows students to go to university much later into their twenties. All the evidence suggests that you get more out of it that way, that you’re more discerning about your chosen provider and study path, and anyway – adolescence continues into your thirties these days.

Next, you allow students to complete at something resembling their own pace. If they have a set back, you have student finance arrangements that allow you to reduce study intensity rather than our weird “stop or go” definition of full-time. Ditto if you need to earn some money, or take on a volunteering role.

Third, you loan students enough money to actually make the most of the opportunities on offer, work overtime to drive down students’ costs, and put in place a proper cushion for currency shocks for those that are recruited from another country. Food banks? In 2024?

Fourth, you deliver on what we know that Gen Z crave – practical application, properly supported team project work and interdisciplinary activity. Properly, not as some hobby in a dark unloved cover of a learning innovation team that’s about to be cut.

Fifth, you’d ban for-profit providers – or if you’re a softy kind of lefty, you’d at least stop profits like this. These are some of the real accounts from real franchised-to providers, enabled by the Willetts/Johnson “level playing field” and cheer-led by mainstream provider who pretend that it’s “good for access” to have the poorest students in the system using their lifetime of loan debt to prop up the accounts and access stats of the franchisor – and line the pockets of owners.

The turnover here is mainly their tuition fees:


And finally, you obsess over facilitating switching both courses and providers, allow students to create degrees from modules from multiple providers, and at the very least allow students to take minors with their majors – all while properly accrediting the service work they do for other students and the deep learning experiences they have at work.

Of course all of that would take money. Without it, home undergraduates will continue to on average pay much more over their lifetime than they did in 2014 – only to have a third less spent on them each. That’s the real rip-off that needs tackling – the one Conservative policy made.

3 responses to “Are the low-value courses in the room with us now?

  1. As someone who has completed both an Undergraduate Degree in an Arts subject, and a Level 4 Degree Apprenticeship in a STEM subject, I can definitely say that the Apprenticeship experience was of much poorer quality than the Degree one, despite costing an awful lot more!

    1. To clarify, the ‘cost per credit’ of my Apprenticeship was higher than the ‘cost per credit’ of my Degree (taking into account tuition fees and OfS recurrent funding).

      1. I’m curious as to how a Level 4 Apprenticeship cost more? More to whom? And what do you mean by ‘much poorer quality’ was it the provider or the course, the work-related experience? Apprenticeships by definition are 80% work 20% learning so which part of the experience warranted this comparison to a Level 6 degree which is 100% learning and at a much higher level than a Leve 4?

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