David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

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.

[Full screen]

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.

Everything else

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.

17 responses to “Student number controls for “poor quality courses” are coming

  1. Are we really looking at investigations of below threshold performance before any cap is imposed? The visualisation suggests a *lot* of investigations.

    1. It’s nothing new in education. The Blair government introduced an arbitrary target of GCSE achievement for secondary school closure in England. No context or adjustment for socio-economic data for the catchment area, no value added adjustment based on primary intake ability; if you fell below the threshold three years in a row you were closed down. Simples.

      And of course the government can’t afford endless “investigations”.

      Welcome to the “Brave New England” future of Universities. I’d move to Scotland if I were you. Might even be back in the EU before the madness south of the border abates….

  2. England, eh? What do you do about it? “The public gets what the public wants” as Paul Weller once sang. Except that it doesn’t. Whoever gets first place on a campaign of inane populism in a majority of constituencies in England can rule the roost and impose whatever stupidities on universities they like. Thank goodness we no longer have to put up with such nonsense, at least in part, in Scotland and Cymru/Wales.

  3. ‘Mickey mouse’ courses (Hodge 2003) is only a cartoon version of the Black Papers in the 1960-70s. Sunak’s policy announcement signals the successful intervention of the Right into the ‘secret walled garden’ of university curricula. In recent years the HE sector has been complicit in reproducing a tripartite system which Norwood, and then Boyson et al. would have been proud of. A raft of newer and vulnerable universities now seek survival as a new lower level of graduate training institutions – universities in title only – offering employability by means of generic powerpoints for huge groups and needing no research active staff. I think that, despite ‘fightin’ talk’ from many (myself included – https://wonkhe.com/blogs/preserving-the-wonder-as-we-widen-access/) the battle is now lost in such institutions. It will take decades to once again find ways of spreading the formative wonder of higher education beyond the privilege that is still required to access it and which zealously guards it for itself against the undeserving.

  4. Well. I think OfS are going to struggle to impose this on ‘courses’ (maybe subject level is possible, but then it misses the point doesn’t it?).
    Devil here is all in the detail. Apart from it being a really stupid idea, the measurements and calculations are really nuanced. Given HESA only report data above a threshold of 22.5 responses (hovering at around 55% of students) and only focussed on UK students, and makes no allowance for labour market conditions, geography (and some tokenistic allowences for those unable to work) this can only apply to pretty large cohort ‘courses’, with a graduating cohort of at least 50 UK students on any given mode of study.
    It’s also unclear on how they will compensate for the time-lag of data. For example, a course performs badly in the stats it represents students who probably started thier course around 5 years ago – during that time improvements are likley to have been made, revalidation events taken place, new accreditations issued, change of teaching staff/managers.
    A cynical person would say they haven’t thought through this level of detail…but let’s wait and see….

  5. I find the differences between ‘new’ post ’92 converted from polytechnics/Colleges of Higher Education and the old Universities (Russell group etc) in the comments rather disappointing, a lot of old pre ’92 Universities have courses that rely on their name and established status to avoid being called ‘mickey mouse’. In truth a number of them use cheap to teach ‘taught only’ courses to top/prop up the underfunding of meaningfully useful STEMM courses that cost significantly more than straight student fee income for the course to run, though those with huge endowment funds and investment reserves could well manage without. They also tend to have larger ‘overseas’ student cohorts, that pay significantly more than UK students, on courses that do little to benefit the UK economy, though it’s said that some (many?) of the overseas students now apply for student loans in the knowledge once they return home they’ll never have to pay it back not matter how highly paid they are.

  6. I’d like to think someone in government has looked at this data and realises that what they’re actually going to end up doing is closing down all of the private providers they were so keen to open the sector up to a decade ago.

    But we all know that no one in government has thought about this beyond the clickbait and pandering to the right wing press headlines that they’re looking for.

  7. So much for the idea of the conservatives being the party of ‘small state, mind our own business’.

    Maybe we should leave it up to undergrads to decide whether or not a course is worth their time or not? Many courses that the government would consider ‘low value’ (read: anything that is a BA) add cultural value to society, something that is difficult to quantify.

    As a group of art graduates, my peers and I (whilst working bar or office jobs) might put on a show that brings an extra 1m visitors into a gallery space that then contributes an extra £500k to their income. And yet because my peers and I are not ‘employed’ as full-time artists our qualification would be viewed as ‘low value’ by the government.

    The purpose of education is not just to throw people down a career pathway; It is to open their minds to new ideas, raise their expectations and make them creative, critical thinkers.

    Unfortunately the government knows that anyone with an ounce of independent thought can see through them and is only looking for more bricks in the wall as someone once sang.

    1. Indeed.

      The conservatives have relinquished the liberal policy of allowing people to make their own possibly misguided decisions within minimal constraints of the state, in favour of neoliberalism’s policy of seeking to construct everyone as economic actors in its own image:

      Olssen, Mark and Peters, Michael A (2005: 315) Neoliberalism, higher education and the knowledge economy: From the free market to knowledge capitalism. Journal of Education Policy, 20(3), 313-345.


  8. On Foundation Year fees, the original premise was around FE colleges offering better value for money to students. But to evidence that, in addition to fee levels, presumably we’d have to look at the outcomes of students on Foundation Years at universities compared to those of students on FYs at FE colleges, who then go on to study a full degree (irrespective of where that is). Any plans for some sector level analysis of that DK?

    1. There’s surprisingly little data out there regarding students on foundation years. But it is an issue I will be looking into shortly.

  9. After at least three years, I would hope that a superlative education would help more than 3 in 5 survivors of higher education get into a job, as late as 15 months after graduating, where they can put into practice some of the masteries they’ve achieved. Why does this sector accept such objectively poor performance and so petulantly reject common sense?

    1. I don’t know if it is a “rejection” of the idea that poor quality courses should be dealt with – we’re all in favour of that. It’s more difficulties regarding how we identify these courses… something the government has struggled with for many years and (on current evidence) continues to struggle with.

      1. Yes, the problem here is that every metric the Govt comes up with, to try to punish post-92s, ends up showing how good a job lots of those institutions are doing, and correspondingly quite a few pre-92s do relatively badly by those same metrics (hence the mess here where some of the claims are based on salary over lifetime, some of salary after 15 months, some on ‘graduate job’ after 15 months). This is mostly because the aim is very obviously to punish and ideally destroy post-92s, and reinforce the dominance of the elite, rather than trying to actually discover where the ‘poor quality’ programmes and uni’s are…

  10. What’s fascinating about the data is how much of the debate on this announcement seems to be at cross-purposes, both in the government comms and sector outrage. A fairly low proportion of creative arts and media ‘courses’ (the usual subject of ‘mickey mouse’ debates) appear to be below the proposed thresholds, despite their generally lower earnings returns in other datasets. Far more commonly below the numerical threshold (after a quick look) appear to be ‘courses’ in business, psychology, and sociology – the former at least is usually seen as a ‘good’ subject for the economy. A lot of the courses are in post-92s (esp in London and the Midlands) but also in FE colleges and private providers, which supposedly the government has supported and trumpeted, and some of which presumably don’t charge at the full fee limit? It’d be interesting (if not already done) to see a full profile of what types of ‘courses’ are actually going to be subject to potential investigations or number caps: what subjects, what providers, and how many students are actually on them (as a proportion of the whole sector).

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