English education secretary turns fire on ‘low value’ degrees

Damian Hinds says universities should drop or revamp courses where graduates do not earn enough five years after leaving university to start making loan repayments

May 26, 2019
Damian Hinds
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English universities have been told by the education secretary to stop offering “poor value” degrees, arguing that their low-earning graduates are costing the taxpayer “millions”.

Damian Hinds said universities should drop or revamp courses where graduates do not earn enough five years after leaving university to start making loan repayments. He highlighted data showing that, on more than one in 10 courses, there was a 75 per cent chance that graduates would not be earning enough. In some disciplines – psychology or creative arts, for example – repayment rates are even lower.

The same analysis – based on Longitudinal Education Outcomes data – also identified about 20 providers where at least three-quarters of all students are still not earning enough to make repayments, five years after graduation.

“With students and taxpayers sharing the cost of higher education it’s right that we challenge those institutions which could appear to be more focused on ‘getting bums on seats’ than getting students into high-quality courses worth paying for,” Mr Hinds said.

“That’s why I want universities to be brave and ask themselves if they’re running courses that really help students gain the skills they need for the workforce of tomorrow – if they’re not they should improve them or end them.”

Mr Hinds’ comments will be seen as preparing the ground for the publication of the post-18 review of funding in England, which is thought likely to recommend a cut in tuition fees to £7,500, with replacement direct public funding so that average funding per student remains at present levels.

However, crucially, it also thought that the government may shift funding away from courses that are lower cost or that are deemed to have lower value in the jobs market.

Theresa May, who personally launched the post-18 review, has announced that she will resign as Conservative leader on 7 June. The review panel’s report is expected to be published before that date.

Mr Hinds recently said that blanket £9,250 tuition fee cap had “incentivised” universities to expand low-cost courses that are often also low value. However, university leaders have warned that many low-cost courses, usually arts and humanities subjects, subsidise more expensive degrees, such as medicine or engineering.

Speaking on 26 May, Mr Hinds added that, “if universities think other options like apprenticeships or technical education are a better fit for a student, they should give young people that advice rather than put them on a course that isn’t providing what they need for a bright future”.

Many in the sector have critical about the use of LEO data to demonstrate the value of degrees, which they say do not accurately reflect what a student gains from a university education.

Alistair Jarvis, chief executive of Universities UK, said that students rightly expected value for money and universities strived to deliver this.

“However, salary outcomes shouldn’t be the only measure of value. Many graduates work in vital roles in the public and charitable sectors or creative industries that make hugely valuable contributions to society and enrich our lives. Others set up their own businesses, with little income in their early years after graduation, but this does not mean that they are not high achievers,” Mr Jarvis said.

Mr Jarvis added that it was “irresponsible” to discourage people from studying at university when there was a clear value to the student, society and economy. He pointed out that most university graduates earned significantly more than non-graduates, on average £10,000 more a year.

anna.mckie@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (1)

This low-value degree argument related to student debt is absolutely bonkers. Student loans do not begin to be repaid by the student until they are earning over £25,000, and a graduate nurse earns around £20,000. So by this logic should we just stop educating nurses because they don't earn enough in the first five years post-graduation to begin to get out of the perceived debt? Due to the lack of money in the NHS and the lack of promotion opportunities as a result, it's not like they can get to Band 6 to start learning the required threshold within the first 5 Years anyway...

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