A minority of undergraduate courses leave students “saddled with debt, [expecting] low earnings, and faced with poor job prospects.”
[Hello – so this article was written before we had full details of the HE Reform package (such as it was). We set out what was going on in a policy watch, and you can get to our full coverage via the “HE Reform” tag. This article is here mainly as a historical curiosity, and to preserve some of the excellent comments below]
This morning we learn that the government is going to do what it thinks is the right thing for students and taxpayers by asking the Office for Students to cap recruitment where courses are not taking enough graduates into good places 15 months after graduation.
Helpfully, OfS not only already has the power to do this, but has done it four times so far. The current “boots on the ground” B3 investigations – which look at graduate outcomes concerns alongside continuation and completion metrics – may result in more restrictions being placed where circumstances warrant it.
The interventions OfS would make are as a result of investigations following concerns over outcomes data, not the mere existence of data underneath an arbitrary threshold. When you are dealing with self-reported survey data with an average response rate of around 50 to 60 per cent the information isn’t good enough to rely on data alone.
The binary outcomes indicator is based on a “good” destination after a university course – primarily a graduate job or further study as someone’s main activity, but also including retirement, travel, or caring responsibilities. Despite wishful language from the government, it doesn’t include salary – because we don’t have a good enough measure of salary to make that cut (given seemingly intractable problems with the LEO dataset).
Though ministers like to talk about “rip-off” courses, we’re actually looking at a fairly broad subject level, and controlling via level and mode of study. I’ve put together a visualisation that allows you to explore how groups of students in subject areas perform against both the threshold and a calculated benchmark (that takes into account the make-up of the student body in question). Anyone below the threshold is fair game for at least a letter, if not an investigation.
If you are wondering why it takes the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Education to announce no new powers for the OfS in response to a consultation that closed in 2022 about a report that was published in 2019 and launched by the last Prime Minister but three in 2018 then you may not be alone. And if you are unclear how this all meshes with the short course revolution sparked by the Lifelong Loan Entitlement (just how do you measure the outcomes of 30 credits of instruction at level 4?) you’ll just have to wait for next year’s OfS consultation.
But there are other announcements too. It’s more likely that the new fee cap for “classroom based” foundation years (down to £5,670 from £9,250) will have a greater impact on aspiration and progression. We understand that this means that science, technology, engineering, and medicine foundation offers will continue to attract full funds – business is the one that gets a specific mention.
Other measures include the unsurprising news that OfS will continue to run Discover Uni as a source of information about courses for applicants.
There will also be a new digital platform for applicants to search for all the things they might want to do that are not university (apprenticeship, T levels, skills bootcamps like the ones that are being defunded to cover a pay increase for teachers, essential skills courses). What with this and UCAS also including apprenticeships and higher technical qualifications, the government hopes that it will be easier and quicker to get on a vocational pathway – there’s also measures to make it easier for employers to take on an apprentice.
OfS is directed to set clearer expectations around higher education franchising arrangements – striking a balance between the value such arrangements bring in widening access and participation and the need to maintain quality and value for money.
This was, of course, the consultation that could have brought about minimum eligibility requirements (MERs) for student finance, based on prior attainment at either level 3 or level 4. A series of well informed consultation responses means that this idea is back on the shelf.
There’ll be further detail and analysis to follow this morning as we get the full publication when it is laid before parliament.