Tories may make universities share risk for ‘low-quality’ courses

Party manifestos all seen as likely to drive English institutions’ focus away from dwindling per-student funding, towards increasing research income

November 27, 2019
Boris Johnson at Conservatives’ manifesto launch
Source: Getty

Tory plans to tackle “low-quality courses” in England could mean cutting loan support or making universities bear costs for courses deemed below par on graduate earnings, while institutions may shift focus towards winning research funding as per-student spending dwindles, according to policy observers.

The publication of the Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat manifestos has produced broad consensus on increasing research funding – while floating some potentially major changes to the research funding system – but no agreement whatsoever on higher education funding and student finance.

The Conservatives said that they would “consider carefully” the “thoughtful” recommendations on tuition fees from the Augar review, which called for a reduction from £9,250 to £7,500.

Labour has pledged to abolish tuition fees and reintroduce student maintenance grants at a cost of £7.2 billion a year. And the Liberal Democrats sought to sidestep the party’s past traumas over tuition fees, committing only to a “review of higher education finance to consider any necessary reforms”.

The Tory manifesto also says that a Conservative government would “continue to explore ways to tackle the problem of…low quality courses”.

Guy Miscampbell, senior research fellow at the Onward thinktank, said that the manifesto “rightly pledges to tackle the scourge of low-quality degrees which deliver poor value for students and taxpayers”.

“The best way to do this would be to cut financial support for courses that deliver below a certain earnings level, or make universities share the risk through the loan system,” he said.

Andy Westwood, professor of government practice at the University of Manchester and a former Labour adviser, said the various party positions “suggest that the unit of resource [per student] is unlikely to go up in next five years and is much more likely to come down – either by the erosion of value from inflation or from more dramatic interventions in the fee”, such as “in types of provision that any party might see as lower value and/or priority”.

Highlighting the commitments of all three major parties in England to increasing research funding, Professor Westwood added: “For universities, then, over time the strategic focus will move more to winning more R&D funding – however it is distributed…than to using undergraduate fees to cross-subsidise it and other things. That’s quite a big difference to the past few years since 2012.”

The Tory manifesto also pledges to “reform the science funding system to cut the time wasted by scientists filling in forms”, once again chiming with the preoccupations of Dominic Cummings – the prime minister’s most senior adviser – on science policy.

James Wilsdon, professor of research policy at the University of Sheffield, cautioned that a drive to “reduce bureaucracy” could be a “double-edged sword”. “If the alternative is a process in which somebody or some elements within government or elsewhere decide on a more arbitrary or more political basis to allocate funds…the net result may be something a lot of academics are very unhappy with,” he warned.

Listen: John Morgan wades through the 2019 party manifestos and discusses how the parties’ proposals will affect higher education in our THE podcast


Print headline: Manifestos signal funding shift

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Reader's comments (3)

But who decides which are “low-quality courses”? Politicians are not qualified to judge. Nor - despite the almost-holy status of the NSS - are students. The Office for Students does not have the academic knowledge to express an opinion either. Perhaps this is a role for the Higher Education Academy? As long as there is a robust right of challenge to any such judgement made (one of the weaknesses in the Ofsted system is that there is no mechanism for challenging the comments they make).
Obviously low quality courses are those where graduates end up in the arts, working for charities, teaching, nursing, female roles, or taking jobs in low income countries. High quality courses are in banking, consultancy, advertising and so on. Simples.
It seems to me that the unit of a good education can only be that of economic output. This is a corrosive and anti-democratic position to hold. Universities, during the reigns from Thatcher to Blair, were told they had failed the market with very few people realising that they were there to serve the market. But now, universities are failing to either serve their democratic mandate in creating new knowledge and understanding how best to live and the market - especially as market goal-posts move without warning from government. BJ (Johnson) - how has no one spotted that before!?! - has a seriously concerning manifesto pledge here and we need to watch it very carefullly.