Will student number controls for underperforming courses actually improve quality?

Debbie McVitty thinks through the next steps for government measures to restrict student recruitment on the basis of quality

The government’s proposals on higher education reform following the Augar review of post-18 education and finding in England focused on tackling “low quality” courses, and increasing participation in study at level four and five.

The broad thinking, grounded in the Augar panel’s analysis of what had happened in the sector since the introduction of the various market-based reforms of the 2010s, seemed to be that universities and other HE providers are overly incentivised to fill their boots with less-qualified students (implicitly from lower-income backgrounds) studying full degrees – who then tend to achieve worse overall outcomes.

Whether you see this as the reality of widening participation in action or a massive con perpetrated on vulnerable people rather depends on your lens. It’s undeniable that in a number of providers, in a number of subject areas, the proportion of students hitting the B3 outcomes of retention and progression are below the threshold that the Office for Students (OfS) believes is acceptable – as DK’s modelling demonstrates. But there’s obviously also a lot going on there in addition to the course itself: students with complex lives; student subject choices that don’t exactly match the labour market on the first pass; employer recruitment habits that don’t take account of the full diversity of talent on offer; and so on.

Foundation years in classroom based subject areas – which can do quite a lot of good in this space in preparing less qualified prospective students to hit the ground running on their degree courses and thereby achieve better outcomes – have had their funding slashed to match Access to HE routes which, while arguably fairer, if it makes the offer financially unviable, ends up reducing pathways into higher study for those students who might not have the grades at the outset.

Proposals to restrict entry to higher education through imposition of universal minimum eligibility requirements for student loans have fallen by the wayside as being too difficult to implement and requiring too many exemptions – given not every entrant to higher education follows the traditional school or college leaver pathway.

The government continues in its aspirations to beef up level four and five provision – and has retained fee limits equivalent to degree provision for higher technical provision accordingly – but otherwise has only vague plans to improve information, advice, and guidance, and work with employers to make alternative routes more visible. The floated national scholarship programme to support disadvantaged students has been kicked well into the long grass.

So it is left to the student number control policy to do the heavy lifting on HE reform: the government has announced it plans to instruct OfS to implement number controls for the “courses” (though subjects is the lowest current available unit of analysis) that are not reaching OfS B3 thresholds. The hope seems to be that implementing restrictions on recruitment – which could be as low as zero – will incentivise HE providers to sort out the issues, or possibly withdraw the course.


In policy terms, then, as the ministerial foreword of the DfE briefing notes, this is “only the start, and not the end” of the government’s “determination to drive out low quality provision.” Mainly because the next thing that has to happen after it issues instructions to OfS to start to use its powers to restrict recruitment, we’d expect OfS to consult on how it will do this – a consultation which, unless it is already sitting on the stocks for release this week, will likely take place in the next academic year.

This is where the regulator will need to set out all the nuance that is missing from the government’s “sledgehammer” visual metaphor that has been doing the rounds on social media. The judgement exercised by OfS in these cases will need to command the trust of the sector, and be transparent insofar as it’s clear what factors OfS is taking into account – factors such as student demographics, the regional employment picture, the extent to which the provider has an analysis of what’s driving the outcomes and a solid plan in place to address it, and the likely impact on broader provision in the subject area if the course was rendered untenable by a regulatory intervention.

There’s a question about the regulator’s capacity to undertake investigation at the scale that might be expected from simply looking at the data, so it’s likely that decisions would need to be made that correlated the intensity of regulatory intervention to the degree of egregiousness of the outcomes shortfall. Ie borderline cases get a letter asking for a plan of action, while those seriously below benchmark get the boots on the ground.

At this point – or probably at the point the regulator sets out its planned approach – providers will be considering whether to implement improvement plans, try their luck in an investigation and make the case to the regulator, or to quietly close the courses that are driving the poor outcomes. Jim has suggested that many may choose the latter option, assuming they can afford to do so – potentially deepening inequalities as providers reduce their risk appetite for offering courses to less (ostensibly) qualified students.

Those that do find themselves subject to a restriction on recruitment may want to challenge the regulator in the courts, which will drag the process out further. To the extent that students may find themselves responding to a market signal that a course is of concern, based on an intervention made several years earlier, itself based on data from several years before that. Which might not be quite the outcome that is sought here.

Trust and confidence

There is, I think, a degree of consensus that it’s not healthy for providers to be able to dodge entirely a question about students’ outcomes – particularly where the provider’s oversight and responsibility for students is outsourced to an external partner, as we see with franchising arrangements, or when a provider’s outcomes are problematic across the full range of its subject provision.

But there’s also a consensus that raw outcomes data is a far from sufficient basis on which to make judgements about quality, that the OfS outcomes thresholds are of necessity arbitrary, and, possibly, a concern that this government is likely to lean on the regulator to show action in this area in ways that could result in an under-nuanced approach. A lot comes down to the degree of faith the sector has in its regulator to exercise reflective and transparent judgement in making these kinds of decisions.

The reality is that providers only have some levers to change student outcomes and that change agendas are complicated and may take years to bear fruit. To invest in this way means the provider having a good degree of self-confidence, and the resource to invest, as well as confidence in the regulator to take a supportive rather than a punitive approach. Assuming that the goal is to improve quality rather than restrict the range of courses available to students, the language of “cracking down” is enormously unhelpful in that regard.

One response to “Will student number controls for underperforming courses actually improve quality?

  1. This is spot on – the key element in relation to implementation (should we get to that point; Labour’s response to yesterday’s announcements were, for this shadow front bench, uncharacteristically fierce and clear) will be trust and transparency. The significant challenge is OfS’s poor track record on both of these. GuildHE’s recent series on regulation and its excellent summary of this (https://guildhe.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/2023/07/GuildHE-Regulation-Briefing-5-Reflections-and-Recommendations.pdf ) very effectively set out the problems in these areas. And the way that the OfS is conducting its current ‘boots on the ground’ B3 investigations (still no operational description published) doesn’t bode well for the regulator demonstrating transparency and building trust in this area.

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