MeCCSA briefing on Government “crackdown on rip-off university degrees”

Earlier this month the Government published its response to the HE reform consultation following the recommendations from the Augar review, prompting a particularly egregious press-release headline: “crackdown on rip-off university degrees”. Reforms are being proposed that the Government claims are designed to ensure – as the journalistic summary puts it – “Students and taxpayers will be better protected against rip-off degree courses that have high drop-out rates, don’t lead to good jobs and leave young people with poor pay and high debts”. One of the key interventions under the plan is to instruct the Office for Students (OfS) to limit the number of students universities can recruit onto courses “that are failing to deliver good outcomes for students” as determined by the B3 conditions of registration. These are tightly linked to numerical thresholds for continuation, completion, and progression. In crude terms, any that fall below the numerical threshold for an indicator might be considered low value. 

The idea of “rip-off degrees” or “low value courses” is a reductionist rhetoric that frames university education in a narrow and instrumental way, designed solely to enhance employment prospects and serve industry demands. MeCCSA strongly rejects this narrow and instrumental interpretation of the aims of Higher Education, as we did in our response to the OfS consultation on these proposals in March 2022. Imagination, creativity, understanding, and scholarship are all qualities that higher education should seek to foster, but they are not easily and simply captured by the measurement of immediate employment records or earnings of graduates. While certainly keen to support students in their employment aspirations, and conscious that they should be equipped with the necessary skills, understanding, and qualifications to open doors to such aims, we regard calibration and assessment of the quality of the education provided by these particular indicators to be a constraint on provider and learner alike. 

While not unmindful of the importance to students of obtaining positive benefit from employment, the satisfactions and opportunities that might follow a successful education may be much wider than economic, while the salary and other material benefits of careers students might seek to follow vary greatly in the remuneration and other purely economic benefits they can provide. Our concerns were noted in the independent HE Reform Consultation Analysis conducted by York Consulting, which surmised that “early graduate earnings may not be a valid measure of the lifetime impact of a degree” (p. 31).

In many occupations even seniority and professional success do not guarantee economic elevation. In addition, the timing of the Graduate Outcomes Survey to be used in constructing the intended measure is itself inappropriate for many career paths, where an extended period between graduation and entry, or between entry and promotion, may be usual. Many students graduating from courses aligned with the creative industries, for example, pursue entrepreneurial careers, the economic, social and cultural value of which are not captured by short-term employment statistics.

MeCCSA has recently issued a statement on the importance of our field, where we draw further attention to the positive employment prospects of our graduates, the economic importance of the ‘creative industries’ sector, and the hugely influential part all forms of media – be that online, mobile, print, or broadcast – play in the social, economic, and cultural life of UK citizens. This is also reflected in the B3 conditions that form the initial basis for assessing degrees, where the subject area of “media, journalism and communications” perform well against the split indicators:

  • Continuation = 90.4%, against B3 threshold of 80%
  • Completion = 88.3%, against B3 threshold of 75%
  • Progression = 67.3%, against B3 threshold of 60%

OfS has already identified sectors where the aggregate average falls below indicators, which were singled out for priority investigation in 2022. The specific subject split indicators they had planned on reviewing in 2022 were Business and Management; Computing; Law; Psychology; Sociology, Anthropology and Social Policy; Sport and Exercise Sciences; and History and Archaeology. Results of these investigations are expected soon. 

Whilst it is reassuring to see our fields perform well against these B3 criteria as a whole, we recognise that there may also be scrutiny of degree courses at individual provider level where they fall below the threshold in one or more of these split indicators. WonkHE published an interactive data visualisation of B3 conditions where you can explore the full dataset, including breakdowns by subject area, indicator level, and provider.

Student outcomes data is also available from OfS website, and WonkHE provides a succinct summary of HR Reform Consultation response.

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