Short-sighted’ Number Caps ‘More About Politics Than Policy’

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Announcement that government will finally follow through with threats to restrict admissions to ‘low-quality’ courses leaves sector leaders with as many questions as answers

The Westminster government has been accused of “chasing headlines” with its promise to crack down on “rip-off” degrees in England, with sector leaders still awaiting detail on how the “divisive” policy will work in practice.

Rishi Sunak, the prime minister, tasked the Office for Students (OfS) with placing number caps on courses deemed to be failing to deliver “good outcomes”, based on graduate employment data and student continuation and completion rates.

Critics said the policy was “overblown” and lacking in detail – particularly given that the OfS already has similar powers – but warned that it could further disincentivise universities from offering opportunities to students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Sir Chris Husbands, vice-chancellor of Sheffield Hallam University, called it an “extremely short-sighted and grotesquely unfair” decision that would, ultimately, “drive inequality”.

“This is a Treasury policy designed to save money on the backs of poorer young people, based on outdated approaches to measuring the labour market,” he said.

Sir David Bell, vice-chancellor of the University of Sunderland and a former permanent secretary at the Department of Education said that, having worked in Whitehall, he was “not naive about the ‘spin’ that is put on government announcements”.

“However, the talk of ‘rip-off’ degrees is particularly disreputable,” he added.

“No university wants its students to fail, and to imply otherwise is insulting and demeaning to our incredibly hard-working staff.”

Institutions often “take a calculated risk” when offering opportunities to students who might – due to their circumstances – be at greater risk of dropping out or, in the short term, not achieving a graduate-level salary, he explained, and such a policy might deter institutions from doing so in future, Sir David warned.

David Green, the vice-chancellor at the University of Worcester, said “Continual attacks” on the quality of Britain’s universities were a “smokescreen” for the fact that government funding for higher education had been “substantially cut”.

In his announcement, Mr. Sunak said he wanted to boost skills training and apprenticeship provision as alternatives to “poor-quality” university courses, but Andy Westwood, professor of government practice at the University of Manchester and a former universities adviser under the last Labour government, said this was undermined by the fact that achievement and progression rates on these sorts of programmes were “typically worse” than degrees.

He said the policy seemed to contradict previous efforts by Conservative governments to incentivise universities to react to market forces and offer more courses and places, and predicted it would hurt education providers in areas that suffered from low pay and weak economies in an apparent break from the “levelling-up” agenda.

But Professor Westwood said such issues would be seen as “secondary” within No 10 given, in his view, that the announcement was more about playing to Mr. Sunak’s “core vote” and made for an “easy headline” in a week of three crucial by-elections. The likelihood of it being enacted was “relatively small”, given the time remaining before the next general election, he added.

Tom Richmond, director of the education thinktank EDSK, agreed that, while it was “perfectly legitimate for a government to direct its resources towards certain institutions and courses”, the “crackdown” seemed to be “more about politics than policy”.

He said it was not clear what limiting student numbers would mean in practice, “nor is it clear why these supposedly low-value courses are being allowed to continue if the government or OfS really do believe they are letting down students”.

Diana Beech, chief executive of London Higher, said that although the announcement appeared “forceful”, there was a “striking lack of detail on what this policy means in practice” and much disagreement about what constituted “low-quality” higher education provision.

Sunderland’s Sir David said he expected a “much more nuanced and careful” approach from the OfS when it outlined how its new approach would be deployed in practice.

And Dr. Beech said this presented universities with a “golden opportunity” to expose the “flaws” in the different approaches and “show the public that this is ultimately about restricting the opportunity to those that could benefit from it the most”.

However, Dr. Beech warned that ultimately the government’s focus on how to stem the flow of students into universities “neglected the critical issue of how we get students already in the system through their education journey and into fulfilling careers, as well as what opportunities it will provide for those who will not be progressing to higher education”.

tom.williams@timeshighereducation.com

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