Proceed with caution: new metric will ‘inevitably’ aid regulation

OfS says it has ‘no plans’ to use new student outcomes measure, but government repeats warnings about ‘low-quality courses’

May 19, 2021
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A controversial new measure that attempts to score English universities on dropout rates and graduate outcomes in one metric will “inevitably” be part of future government attempts to regulate what it sees as “low-quality” courses, a policy expert has warned.

The “Projected completion and employment from entrant data” (Proceed) statistics, published by the Office for Students, give the overall likelihood that a student entrant at a particular university will go on to a “positive” graduate outcome, defined mainly as professional employment or further study.

According to the OfS, the data show “significant differences” in performance between different universities and colleges, with less than half of students starting a degree at 25 providers being likely to be in activities such as professional employment or further study 15 months after graduation.

It is the first time the “experimental measure” has been published for individual universities, and follows tweaks to its methodology to attempt to assuage concerns over the dataset when its approach was outlined in December.

These include widening the definition of a “positive outcome” for graduates to include those travelling or with caring responsibilities, changing the treatment of students who transfer to another provider, and publishing contextual information alongside the dataset.

However, the contextual data – such as students’ entry grades and the subject studied – were still not used to calculate the indicator, while critics also point to the narrow focus on “professional” jobs 15 months after graduation that may not include many vocational careers.

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The measure also takes no account of regional differences in employment levels that might affect how likely it is for graduates in a certain area to find work.

Many of the 25 providers flagged by the OfS as having the lowest Proceed measure are private providers, where concerns have previously been raised about non-continuation rates, but a number of universities also make the list.

One example is University College Birmingham, which pointed out that it had a “unique set of higher education courses, which are mostly vocational and hands-on in nature”.

“Many of our larger courses that feature in this data are focused on careers in the service and hospitality sectors that are not currently classified as graduate level jobs, despite their highly skilled nature,” said Alice Wilby, pro vice-chancellor for access, participation and student experience.

She added that the institution expected its data on the measure to improve in future, partly because it had introduced more courses in digital, nursing and allied health, finance and accountancy subjects that led to roles more likely to be classified as graduate level. 

The OfS said it had “no plans” to use the current data for “regulatory purposes”, but this may do little to alleviate concerns that the measure will eventually form part of government attempts to clamp down and reduce funding for what it deems to be low-quality courses.

Its publication also comes just days after the government announced that it would legislate to give the OfS new powers to enforce “minimum expectations of quality”.

Responding to the publication of the data, Gavin Williamson, the education secretary, emphasised this, saying its skills bill “makes clear the power of the Office for Students to take much-needed action in this area, including its ability to enforce minimum standards for universities on course completion rates and graduate outcomes”.

Alan Palmer, head of policy and research at MillionPlus, an association that represents a number of post-92 universities, said there was a “valid argument” that taxpayer funding for higher education should help students “to be successful”.

But he said regulation was moving towards defining success as “a particular kind of job, paid at a particular kind of level, paid at a particular time – ie, straight after university”.

“I will take the OfS at its word that it’s not going to use this data for regulation, but I can’t see that being sustained over the longer term. It is inevitable that this will form part of the regulatory journey,” he said.

“I can well see a discussion in the future about denying access to student finance for courses where the figures are lower than certain thresholds, and you can absolutely see that’s where it’s headed.”

Nicola Dandridge, the OfS chief executive, said: “While we have no plans to use this indicator for regulatory purposes, we are determined to tackle poor-quality provision which offers a raw deal for students.

“We are currently consulting on our approach to regulating student outcomes with a view to raising the numerical baselines we have used previously and – subject to the outcomes of the consultation – will set out next steps shortly.”

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