In public, DfE ministers have a strong stance on clamping down on “low quality” in HE. In the pages of the recently published policy statement and consultation on HE reform, the question of who should access what kinds of courses, and when, is a bit more equivocal.

How do you solve a problem like the HE market?

Essentially, the government has a policy problem it wants help to solve, which is, counter-intuitively for a Conservative government, too-powerful market forces. There are various ways to frame the issue, but DfE has broadly accepted the analysis put forward in the report of the independent panel chaired by Philip Augar to the DfE post-18 review of education and funding (the Augar report), which argued that total removal of student number controls in 2014 had not created an optimal outcome.

According to the Augar panel, the response of HE providers to the unleashing of the HE market – or the accumulation in the system of lots of relatively modest changes at individual provider level – had been to expand full time degree courses with relatively low overheads, such as those in business and the social sciences – or, arguably, to respond to student demand for those kinds of courses – at the expense of the more expensive but strategically important courses, particularly in the sciences.

And market instability, with some providers taking a larger market share at the expense of others, meant that most universities generated larger overheads in marketing and recruitment costs, and those providers that struggled to recruit or that saw a gap in the market turned their attention more and more to prospective students with lower qualifications.

To some this is an unqualified success story, with more students able to study the courses that they want to, in the universities that most appeal, with access to university education for the most disadvantaged the best it has ever been – and the support mechanisms in place (such as foundation years) to address any issues of lower prior attainment.

To others, the sector looks unbalanced and overheated, with over-provision in some subject areas, too much uniformity of qualification, and a small but significant number of students stranded in provision that is unlikely to lead to good graduate outcomes (degree award, graduate job, salary to match) – because of inadequate preparation for study, or poor quality provision, or simply because there are too many other graduates in that subject area jostling for the same jobs in the same region.

The circle that ministers are trying to square is that access to HE is undoubtedly popular, and no government wants to become the enemy of opportunity. A lot of cultural weight directs school and college leavers into the three year degree and it’s hard to tell prospective students that they can’t study whatever subject they are most passionate about.

But if the accumulated consequence of all those individual decisions is that taxpayers are paying for a system that doesn’t produce quite the right overall skills profile in the population, or deliver value for students’ investment, then the thinking is that it’s the government’s responsibility to use the levers it has available to cool down the market and try to nudge people in a different direction.

What is up for consultation?

The re-imposition of a student number control (SNC). The document hastens to clarify that the government does not have an overall proportion in mind of who should benefit from HE, but aims to use the lever of number controls to incentivise provision that leads to better outcomes (slash clamp down on provision that doesn’t).

We’ve already seen moves from OfS to define what constitutes quality provision in its current consultation on minimum thresholds for a particular basket of student outcomes – so it’s odd not to see this referenced here. Instead, DfE is consulting on the level at which SNCs might be set – sector, provider, subject, or even level or mode of study.

DfE is also interested in which outcomes might be taken into account, with graduate earnings making a return from the outcomes policy wilderness, as well as progression into valued public sector roles such as education and health. There’s also a suggestion that overall national priorities – such as net zero carbon emissions, shortage occupations and national skills needs, and priority areas such as digital capabilities might be taken into account.

The introduction of minimum eligibility requirements (MER) for access to student loan finance for full undergraduate degrees. An enormously controversial proposal, given that it is likely to disproportionately impact the most disadvantaged prospective students. But there’s also a suggestion that these are the students who are likely to be more vulnerable to providers’ marketing rhetoric and with less access to the advice and guidance that will help them to judge whether a course will benefit them in the long run.

The case put for a MER is that a student who has not developed their skills to a certain level is unlikely to be prepared for full-degree-level study. Where that skills threshold should be set is up for debate – one version focuses on achieving a grade 4 (or C in old money) in Maths and English at GCSE; the other on having at least two grade Es at A level or equivalent.

Exemptions could include students over 25, part-time students, students who already hold level four or five qualifications, and, if the level two/GSCE MER were implemented, any student who had gone on to perform well at level three. If implemented, in theory those prospective students impacted by a MER would still be eligible for a foundation year or level four course, which could then support them on to a full degree pathway.

Here we’re using Unistats data to look at the entry tariff points of students at course level (we spoil you, we really do). Use the subject filters at the top only after you have set the provider filter in the middle to “all”, you can then filter by provider or just look at all provision. The list at the bottom is sorted on the proportion of students with between 1 and 48 points – 48 being roughly equivalent to DE at A levels.

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We don’t get data on L2 attainment for students at providers – but this graph shows the proportion of disadvantaged students in each local authority areas getting a 4 or higher on GCSE English and Maths.

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Reducing the cost of foundation years. The Augar panel argued that Access to HE courses, which are normally delivered in colleges, are much better value for students than foundation years, and worried about the expansion of foundation years as a mechanism to “entice” applicants who would otherwise not be adequately prepared to start the first year of a degree course. The counter-argument, of course, is that foundation years offer a supportive access pathway, including to highly selective courses, and the opportunity to become familiar with a university environment and way of learning, smoothing the path to a full degree.

The Augar panel recommended that student finance be removed entirely from foundation years – DfE has taken a more moderate approach, proposing that the fees for Access to HE courses and foundation years should be set at the same level – reducing the foundation year fee to £5,197 in the first instance. It’s also suggested that some foundation years could be eligible for a higher fee – such as those supporting access to medicine and dentistry, for example – a proposal bound to find favour with selective institutions, and rather less with everyone else.

These first two graphs show students registered on foundation at each provider and for each subject area for the last decade. These figures come from the standard student record (so do not include alternative providers), and three providers (Falmouth, Worcester, and South Bank) do not permit use of this data by journalists.

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As above, this next graph is a little more experimental, we’re using Unistats data to look at the number of students who have a foundation year as their entry qualification – at course level (we spoil you, we really do). Use the subject filters at the top only after you have set the provider filter in the middle to “all”, you can then filter by provider or just look at all provision. The list at the bottom is sorted on the proportion of students on that course who entered via a foundation year (there is some rounding and aggregation going on for smaller courses), shown via the pink dot.

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£75 million for a national scholarship scheme. A rather paltry sum and an undercooked proposal, suggesting that this element may have been added at a late stage in discussions. The focus is not on alleviating student hardship across the piece but on widening choices and improving outcomes for high achieving students from disadvantaged backgrounds either through opening up opportunities that were previously perceived as out of reach (read: more selective courses; more studying away from home) or by reducing the need for part-time work during term time. DfE wants input on what the eligibility criteria should be for such a scheme.

Growing higher technical provision at levels four and five. Looking ahead to the sunlit uplands of the rollout of the new Lifelong Loan Entitlement (LLE) – the subject of a whole other consultation – DfE is keen to explore how to encourage more HE providers to offer higher technical qualifications, and raise the prestige and desirability of those qualifications as an alternative to degree level study – or, indeed, a pathway towards it – without creating perverse incentives.

The diversity in the market for these kinds of qualifications – those looking for degree alternatives, those who would otherwise have completed their education at level three, and those looking to reskill – adds complexity to the picture and means DfE wants input on the most appropriate fee models for these kinds of qualifications.

The plan is to align financing systems for approved higher technical qualifications and degrees from 2023-24 as a step on the road towards the LLE. There is also hope that higher technical qualifications can become more modular, and DfE is keen to explore how to do that and what the implications would be for how universities organise their courses.

Data visualisations by David Kernohan. 

One response to “In the Augar response ministers are trying for a third way between capping opportunity or letting the HE market run amok

  1. The overall aim is to shrink the sector – PROCEED is a done deal with senior leaders across the country already mapping what provision they expect to close, or they will close themselves. Many are telling staff there is time to change but I’ve not talked to anyone senior who really thinks you can turn dog courses around at this point.

    At the three Universities nearest to me I know that it ranges between 20-45% of provision that they don’t expect to hit the metrics.

    At least one is busy backing into being an FE provider via mass introduction of technical qualifications and running an IoT (which has numbers that make no sense – I’ve seen them).

    Following the ongoing mess of COVID, expect to see many HE leaders head for the door this year because they cannot face a year of restructuring and making mass redundancies.

    That’s the option I’ve taken – I’ve seen the detailed internal analysis and I’m getting out.

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