Ministers confirm numbers cap plan for ‘rip-off’ degree courses

Long-awaited consultation response parks proposal to introduce sector-wide minimum entry requirements but slashes foundation year fee limit

July 17, 2023
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Ministers have confirmed plans to cap the number of students who can enrol on what they called “rip-off” courses at English universities, despite concerns that the move will disproportionately penalise students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

In its long-awaited response to the higher education reform consultation, which was issued in February 2022, the Westminster government said it would ask the sector regulator, the Office for Students (OfS), “to limit the number of students universities can recruit onto courses that are failing to deliver good outcomes”.

As reported previously by Times Higher Education, this is thought to be a reference to the OfS’ controversial B3 condition on quality, which sets numerical baselines for institutions and courses to meet, on student continuation and completion rates and on graduate employment, a metric that requires six in 10 full-time first-degree students to go into “professional” employment or further study.

According to the OfS’ annual report, the most recent figures showed that 5.2 per cent of all providers were below baseline on continuation, 6.7 per cent below baseline on completion, and 1.6 per cent below baseline on employment progression, although that was up from 0.7 per cent two years earlier.

While the bulk of courses at highly selective universities are unlikely to be affected – although this is not universally the case, according to THE analysis – there are concerns that the clampdown will unfairly punish institutions that recruit high proportions of students from working-class or ethnic minority backgrounds.

Ministers also confirmed that, as expected, they would park proposals to introduce a minimum entry requirement for students to be eligible for Student Loans Company funding, which many in the sector had warned would require complex exemptions to avoid penalising groups such as mature students.

And they said that tuition fees for classroom-based foundation courses would be capped at £5,760 – down from £9,250 currently, and bringing them into line with many further education courses. The government said it was concerned that “too many people are encouraged to take a foundation year in some subjects like business where it is not necessary”.

Rishi Sunak, the prime minister, said too many young people were “being sold a false dream and end up doing a poor-quality course at the taxpayers’ expense that doesn’t offer the prospect of a decent job at the end of it”.

“That is why we are taking action to crack down on rip-off university courses, while boosting skills training and apprenticeships provision,” he said.

“This will help more young people to choose the path that is right to help them reach their potential and grow our economy.”

There remains a question mark over whether the numbers cap plan will actually come into force, since there may be too little time for the Conservative government to get it up and running before the next general election. While the OfS already has the power to cap enrolment on courses where there are concerns about student outcomes, it is yet to complete any investigations related to its B3 condition, and it is unclear whether a Labour government would continue with caps.

Rachel Hewitt, chief executive of the MillionPlus group of modern universities, said she was “concerned that these measures will not improve provision for students as intended”.

“The Office for Students already holds regulatory powers to take action where quality issues are identified, but it is not clear how these new caps would be introduced operationally, and more detail will be needed to understand the practical implications,” Ms Hewitt said.

“Measures which are purely outcomes-focused and do not take any wider circumstances into account also risk limiting access to students from the most disadvantaged backgrounds and counteracting positive steps which have been taken to widen access to higher education in recent years.”

Jonathan Simons, head of the education practice at the consultancy Public First, said: “Buried away in the small print is a confirmation that minimum entry requirements – and indeed student number controls overall – have formally been ditched. On the one hand, [this is] good for government in responding to a large degree of opposition.

“On the other hand, it makes today’s announcement pretty thin, and it’s not clear what is actually new in here at all, given that OfS can already apply conditions to poor performance.”

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Reader's comments (5)

Continuation and completion rates - these people are vulnerable to life-course issues through deprived status and need support not discrimination.
If we have a Government that is failing to deliver good outcomes can we have a political reform consultataion ?
Wonder if anyone is missing the Quality Assurance Agency yet. I mean it did what it said on the tin, and not at the expense of the arts and humanities or widening participation. Arbitrary targets and constant focus on earnings in a short timeframe is incredibly short sighted.
Once the thoroughly discredited OfS is got rid of, along with the idea that a degree is solely for the purpose of gaining a high-earning job in the field you have been studying, there might be some validity to politicians' comments. A university education is about developing open and enquiring minds, teaching students to think and to learn, to be intellectually honest. By those lights and judging by an exemplar graduate, we'd better ditch Oxford University's Classics degree. Boris Johnson clearly didn't benefit from taking one :) Of course, that's not a serious suggestion. Many students have derived great benefit from that course and hopefully many more will do so.