Concerns over ‘deeply subjective’ criteria for extra English places

Commentators accuse government of using the crisis to implement Tory manifesto pledges on ‘low-quality courses’

六月 4, 2020
Music fans and security staff at the newly installed crowd control barriers at the Main Stage during day one of Reading Festival 2019
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Details of the Westminster government’s student number cap, aimed at stabilising England’s admissions system amid the pandemic, have prompted fears it is using the crisis to push through the Conservative agenda against perceived “low-quality” courses.

On 2 June, the government published its measures to “protect students and universities during the coronavirus outbreak”, including temporary student number controls and additional places.

English providers will have the number of students capped at their forecast growth plus 5 per cent, while universities in the devolved nations will not be able to increase their intake of English students by more than 6.5 per cent.

English institutions can bid for an additional 10,000 places in subjects that are “of strategic importance”, which will be allocated by the Department for Education. This includes 5,000 places for healthcare courses.

The other 5,000 places will be available for architecture, biological sciences and biochemistry, chemistry, engineering, engineering geology, hydrogeology, geophysics, geology and geochemistry, Initial Teacher Training undergraduate courses, mathematics, physics, social work and veterinary science.

However, the criteria needed to access those places have prompted concerns. An institution would need to have a continuation rate of 90 per cent or higher, or high-skilled employment or further study rate of at least 75 per cent to access the places.

This appears to be an effort to tackle “low-quality courses”, as promised in the Conservative manifesto at the 2019 election. Graduate earnings have already become a metric against which universities are judged via their inclusion in the teaching excellence framework.

Emma Hardy, Labour’s shadow universities minister, told Times Higher Education: “The current crisis and the vital role of key workers illustrates the problems with judging the worth of a job on salary alone.

“It would seem to me that the mechanism the government is intending to use [to tackle what it deems ‘low-quality’ courses] is through the conditions it will set on those universities who find themselves in financial difficulty and have to approach the DfE for a bailout.”

David Phoenix, vice-chancellor of London South Bank University, said the criteria fail to consider factors such as benchmark data, meaning the move “directly discriminates in favour of highly selective institutions where the majority of students are from middle-class groups who have a greater tendency to complete due to higher prior attainment and often greater access to support from home.”

Gordon McKenzie, chief executive of GuildHE, said that his “biggest worry about governments deciding what qualifications [they want students to get] is that it is solving the problems of the past: even looking at the jobs students get is looking at the past, and with the coronavirus we have no idea what subjects students will need in the future”.

Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, said the detail in the number control measures “does play into” the government’s agenda on “low-quality” courses, but that there were more informed ways of discussing the value of a degree.

He said the extra places were “better than having no extra places at all”, but that he was wary of dictating what subjects were available, rather than leaving it to student choice.

Jo Grady, general secretary of the University and College Union, said she feared “the criteria the government is using to allow institutions to bid for extra places are deeply subjective, closed-minded and not led by the evidence”.

“The government added strings to a package offering no new money at the start of May, so the sector should be aware of its motives,” she added. “The controls will push the problems created by coronavirus down the chain and make many institutions financially unstable, as well as create problems for the devolved nations.”

David Green, vice-chancellor of the University of Worcester, said he saw the announcement as “the de facto end of the attempt to ‘control’ higher education through the market and the return to a system of financial incentives and fines”.

Ministers in the devolved nations also expressed outrage at the plans, which Ms Hardy said “had been announced without any warning or consultation with either the devolved administrations or the universities themselves”.

A Department for Education spokeswoman said: “The student number controls are a vital part of stabilising the admissions system and ensuring a fair and structured spread of students across higher education providers. The controls aim to help all providers remain financially stable during these unprecedented circumstances.

“The funding of English-domiciled students is not a devolved matter, and it is right and fair that this policy should apply as consistently as possible wherever they are studying in the UK.”



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Reader's comments (5)

Good to see that low quality courses (without citation marks) are being dealt with. They definitely exist and exploit gullible students.
This would have more credibility if there was any coherent assessment of what constitutes a 'low-quality course' - none of us set out to teach badly after all. There's also a need to get away with the false linkage between subject studied and jobs. For a start, not everyone (except maybe medics, lawyers and some engineers) actually go into the subject they've studied. University-level study is about a lot more than the job you do after you graduate. (I have a first degree in botany, but am a chartered fellow of the British Computer Society and now work in a university Computer Science department...)
Earnings by degree correlate with ideological proximity of faculty and students to the government. Closing down courses with low economic prospects means shutting down the fiercest critics of the government.
This is a crude way for the Government to reduce student choice and the independence of individual Universities. Some people are not going to like it but I believe it has to be done to prevent inappropriate growth in the sector. The Government should go back to controlling costs by limiting the number of under graduate and post graduate students and prevent cross subsidising between course type and subsidising research from student income budgets. We need clarity of costs and outcomes and greater specialisation of skills related degrees. Universities should be encouraged to develop new courses designed to support the jobs of the future in sectors such as Data Mining, AI, Robotics, Cyber Security etc even if it means a reduction in places for more traditional arts and social science studies.
Has anyone determined which MPs rose to their dizzy heights on the back of 'low quality' degrees?