Government fights universities over ‘rip-off’ degrees

With the Conservative government in the United Kingdom reeling from one crisis to the next and facing three by-elections and runaway inflation, why not pick a fight with the higher education sector and threaten a crackdown on so-called ‘rip-off’ university degrees?

Policy-makers and spin doctors in Downing Street will have been delighted with the front-page headlines on Monday 17 July, with much of Britain’s national press leading with Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s announcement that “university courses that fail to deliver good outcomes, with high drop-out rates and poor employment prospects, will be subject to strict controls”.

The right-wing leaning Daily Telegraph was typical, saying: “Young people being sold a false dream, says Sunak as he vows to tackle ‘bad’ degrees.”

Response to Augur review

The student number controls’ announcement by press release came in the form of a much delayed government response to a review of post-18 education led by Sir Philip Augar, which was set up in 2017 when Theresa May was still prime minister.

Writing a commentary in the Telegraph, Sunak said that although the UK had some of the best universities, one in five graduates in the country – approximately 70,000 every year – would be better off financially if they had not gone to university.

“Put simply: our young people are being ripped off. They’re being saddled with tens of thousands of pounds of debt from bad degrees that just leave them poorer, and dissuaded from pursuing more vocational options because they are led to believe that university is the only route to success,” Sunak wrote.

The hallmark of success, according to the government, is having a highly skilled, well-paid job 15 months after graduating or going on to further study.

Change mindset towards apprenticeships

However, slightly lost in the unusually tabloid-style announcement attacking ‘rip-off’ degrees was Sunak’s argument that “we also need to change our national mindset about the value of apprenticeships and vocational qualifications”.

But even here there was little detail, with Sunak talking about “big steps” already taken such as the £2.7 billion (US$3.5 billion) apprenticeship levy and the NHS long term workforce plan including “ambitious plans to help young people to pursue apprenticeships” in the health service.

Responding to the government announcement, former Conservative MP and one-time secretary of state for education Justine Greening, dismissed Sunak’s claim backing “world-class apprenticeships” as an alternative to university degrees, saying in a blog: “There have been no significant reforms to apprenticeships and the apprenticeship levy since I introduced them in 2017 as education secretary.

“Reform is crucial if we’re to see more young people, from all backgrounds, access apprenticeships as an opportunity. Employers – who overwhelmingly want to offer more apprenticeships are crying out for reform.”

Greening said the government’s response to the Augur review failed to mention the call for “the reintroduction of maintenance grants for disadvantaged students. That is ignored by this announcement and four years on, still left unaddressed”.

Misconceived and anti-levelling-up

She said the latest proposals from Sunak’s government were “both misconceived and anti-levelling-up” and will “disproportionately impact more disadvantaged people from more disadvantaged communities”.

England’s higher education funding system provides government-backed student loans to pay the £9,250 annual undergraduate tuition fee and some maintenance loans. These only need to be repaid back by home students when graduates earn above a threshold – soon to be reduced from £27,295 to £25,000 per-annum – with the repayment period extended from 30 to 40 years, or whenever the full amount plus interest is paid off.

The government admits the student loan system means taxpayers are “liable for billions of pounds in unrecovered tuition fees if graduate earnings are low”, which perhaps helps explain the focus on supporting degrees that lead directly to high-paying jobs.

International students are not eligible for the student loans and pay much higher tuition fees than home students to study at UK universities and their future graduate earnings and employment are not measured in the same way, despite calls for this to be done to demonstrate the value of studying in the UK on future job prospects.

So, the latest government announcement is really about so-called ‘low quality’ or ‘bad’ course outcomes for British students.

As for the degrees to have student numbers controlled, no courses are actually identified for clamping down apart from classroom-based foundation year courses which will have their maximum tuition fee level slashed to £5,760 – from £9,250 currently. This is expected to impact mainly on business-related subjects.

Timing of the change is odd

Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) said the attack on foundation year courses, which offer an additional year of study to help prepare students for degrees with specific entry requirements, was “not exactly a surprise”, but “the timing of the change is odd, given that some of the COVID generation of school pupils might have more need than most for a foundation year”.

There was relief in the higher education sector that the government had not pressed ahead with an idea for “minimum eligibility requirements”, which would have meant that people with low A-Level grades (or equivalent) would not be entitled to subsidised student loans.

Hillman said he was “more sympathetic to some of the political rhetoric around rooting out low quality provision than many in the higher education sector”.

In a blog for HEPI, he wrote that the idea of “limits of some sort”, on a case-by-case basis, “using a mix of metrics and contextual information”, looking at continuation, outcomes and employment makes some sense and is probably “less blunt” than likely alternatives.

He also suggested that should the Conservatives be defeated at the next general election, a future Labour or centre-left government would probably stick to judging graduate success by future earnings, as it did under Tony Blair’s New Labour government 20 years ago.

“The real importance of all the new announcements is that, very slowly, we are getting a sense of how the two big parties will battle out the next election when it comes to higher education in England," said Hillman.

“Labour have recently reconciled themselves to fees and loans while talking about a more ‘progressive’ deal for graduates. The Tories meanwhile are focusing themselves on outcomes for students,” he said.

Labour response

Labour’s actual response from Bridget Phillipson MP, Labour’s shadow secretary of state for education, was a little more forceful.

She called it: “an attack on the aspirations of young people and their families by a government that wants to reinforce the class ceiling, not smash it” and described the Conservatives’ record on apprenticeships as “appalling”.

“The new role for the Office for Students will put up fresh barriers to opportunity in areas with fewer graduate jobs,” she said.

Thom Brooks, Professor of Law and Government at Durham University and an executive committee member of the Labour-affiliated Fabian Society, told University World News: “It seems all a game of distraction from the very many problems the government has created for itself, such as the worsening economy and record levels of small boat arrivals.

“To say they'll end some underperforming degrees without being able to name one, it gives their game away.”

Apprenticeships not rivals to degrees

Ruth Arnold, a consultant for the charity and higher education sectors and former director of public affairs at the University of Sheffield in Yorkshire, said: “The problem in the UK is not primarily low-quality courses. Home students and those from across the world choose (our) excellent courses which are well taught, transforming lives and opportunities in the process.

“The problem here and in other countries is they cannot offer the employment prospects or remuneration that graduates hoped for, and this hits especially hard those who don’t have the contacts or mobility to overcome those restrictions.”

Arnold, whose father was a Yorkshire miner, now works for global education provider Study Group, said the government shouldn’t be pitting academic degrees against apprenticeships as if they were rivals.

Instead, it should learn from examples such as the successful collaboration between higher and further education and business to create an advanced manufacturing research centre with industry in South Yorkshire 20 years ago.

“Part EU funded, it became home to more 2,000 industry-funded apprentices, despite the fact that then levelling up wasn’t even a twinkle in a politician’s eye,” said Arnold.

“Some of those apprentices chose to continue on to degrees in Engineering. Nobody forced my university to do this or industry and the region to work with us.

“But all involved were determined, united by a shared purpose to make things better for a region blighted by industrial decline and for its children. It wasn’t either/or then, and it shouldn’t be now.”

Nic Mitchell is a UK-based freelance journalist and PR consultant specialising in European and international higher education. He blogs at www.delacourcommunications.com.