English campuses await minister’s move on ‘low quality’ courses

Student number controls on subject areas within institutions could be seen as ‘the most technically feasible’ option, policy expert predicts

March 10, 2020
Source: Getty

The Westminster government is “very likely” to announce this year moves to tackle “low quality” courses at English universities, with the introduction of student number controls “very possible”, one policy expert has predicted.

With the Conservative manifesto having pledged to “tackle the problem of…low-quality courses”, there are increasing fears in the sector about the prospect of swift government action.

According to some in the sector, there are suggestions that the government could ask the Office for Students to implement student number controls for subject areas within institutions deemed “low quality”, meaning that those subject areas judged to be performing poorly on graduate earnings and graduate outcomes measures would not be allowed to expand student numbers.

Returning to the idea of capping student numbers sector-wide via minimum grade requirements for student loan access – floated by the Augar review but not included as one of its recommendations – is seen as another option that could be considered by the government.

Michelle Donelan, the new universities minister, wrote in an article for The Daily Telegraph on 29 February that she was “determined to crack down on low-quality courses”.

Another key factor could be the recent appointment of Baroness Wolf, regarded as the driving force on the Augar review panel and as a proponent of a minimum entry tariff restriction for higher education loans, as skills and workforce policy adviser in the No 10 Policy Unit.

In addition, Iain Mansfield, who said in a March 2019 blog post that the ideas of a student number cap or an “attainment threshold for entry” were “not unreasonable”, has recently been appointed as special adviser to education secretary Gavin Williamson. Mr Mansfield told Times Higher Education in January, before his return to government, that “much more significant action” could be taken by the OfS to tackle “low-quality” provision.

Jonathan Simons, a former head of education in the prime minister’s Strategy Unit, now a director at political consultancy Public First leading its education work, said that addressing “low quality” courses would be “essentially the major thing” that Ms Donelan will work on, now that science has been split off into a separate brief.

He added: “Given she’s a new minister of state she will be keen to make her mark, and that means she will be keen to do something as quickly as is reasonably possible.”

Mr Simons continued: “You look at the spending review coming up, where we’re going to get the [government] response to Augar, and I think it’s very likely there’s going to be some sort of commitment on it.”

Future rises in higher education funding costs for the government are likely to play a big role in ministers’ thinking, including changes to the accounting treatment of student loans, which will increase the amount of loan outlay treated as direct government spending.

Mr Simons said: “The difficulty the government has is you can’t separate out this issue [“low quality” provision] from the broader issues of how you fund universities, how you deal with the population boom of 18-year-olds coming through, and on the other hand how you keep costs down.

“It’s very possible that in [the government] response to Augar there’s some reintroduction of student number controls.”

He added: “If you are going to introduce some form of student number control, it would make sense, from a policymaking perspective, to have some sort of quality indicator in there. You wouldn’t just put a flat cap on numbers across the board, most likely.” Number controls for subject areas at particular institutions could be viewed as “the most technically feasible way of doing it”, he suggested.


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Reader's comments (4)

A concerning and completely unacceptable idea... and very possibly ultra vires as well, given that students pay fees and hence have a direct commercial interaction with their university, rather than them being funded by the government. The Office for Students does not have valid expertise to judge the 'quality' of a course (whatever that means, it's not even been defined) either. Universities need to tell the government that such a concept will not be entertained.
What M. Robertson said.
Assuming most graduates are evntually employed by commercial enterprises, it would appear these factors should have some input as to the quality of student training.
I find merit in all the proposals above. The amount spent on FE, HE and R & D is already high in terms of the diminishing benefits arising from the expenditure for all the stakeholders involved. However, there still needs to be a greater focus and spend in digital skills training and in sectors such as AI, Robotics, Cyber Security and Data Mining. The sooner FE and He get moving on developing the right courses in these areas the better.