Universities are facing a crackdown on ‘Mickey Mouse’ degrees as the watchdog threatens to withdraw student loan funding from shoddy courses.
Vice-Chancellors will be warned by the Office for Students (OfS) that they risk facing penalties – including financial penalties – if their degrees are not issued to students.
The higher education regulator has pledged to take a more “robust” approach to quality assurance, which will include launching investigations into reports of poor practice.
Degrees with high drop-out rates and low graduate employment rates will be targeted by the OfS for review.
The regulator will publish proposals this week setting out the set of “minimum requirements” they expect degree courses to meet in terms of student outcomes.
If courses are consistently found to be below these, they could be barred from receiving student loans, which would most likely make them financially unviable.
A well-placed source at the OfS said: ‘Students need to know that wherever they choose to study, their course will be of high quality. It is therefore important to crack down on prices that are below average, and our new plans – which will be published this week – will define how we intend to do this.
Concerns about the cost to the taxpayer
Whitehall officials are worried about the cost to taxpayers of the growing number of students who get places at university but do not earn enough to repay their student loans.
Ministers have been particularly critical of so-called ‘Mickey Mouse’ degrees which put students in debt but add little to their job prospects, and have previously accused universities of offering ‘usable’ courses in the rush to have “tramps on the seats”.
It comes as Universities UK (UUK), the Vice-Chancellor’s membership group, launches its own framework aimed at tackling poor quality degrees.
Professor Julia Buckingham, the former president of UUK who chaired the organization’s advisory group on the issue, acknowledged that universities “have faced regular waves of criticism for so-called Mickey degrees Mouse”.
She told the Telegraph: ‘Universities cannot and will not ignore concerns that some courses are not meeting these high standards and are failing students and taxpayers.
“We will not allow a small minority of courses to damage our world-class reputation, disappoint our students and undermine the confidence of prospective students, their parents and the public.”
Research from the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) has shown that nearly eight in 10 graduates will never repay their student loan in full under the current tuition fee system.
Creative arts cost taxpayers the most
The think tank found that arts graduates cost the taxpayer £35,000 each with degrees in ‘creative arts’ subjects – which include music, theatre, fine art and design studies – the most expensive for the taxpayer since so few alumni earn enough money to pay off their student loans in full.
Of the £9billion the government spends annually on higher education, more than £1billion is spent on creative arts courses alone, where three-quarters of the total amount given in loans is recouped by the taxpayer, according to the 2019 IFS report found.
The higher education regulator said it would not accept the argument that students from disadvantaged backgrounds are less likely to get good jobs after graduating.
He has made it clear that the “minimum requirements” he will set for student outcomes will not be dropped for universities that admit a high proportion of undergraduates from disadvantaged households.
Ministers are preparing to publish their long-awaited response to an official higher education review, known as the Augar review, in the coming months.
Conducted by Sir Philip Augar, the former stockbroker, the exam was the first since 1963 that the government ordered in higher and further education.
Professor Buckingham said: “Like any other sector that depends in part on public funding, the need for universities to prove their worth is ongoing.
“Universities need to be able to clearly communicate why they are offering the courses they offer and what the value of those courses is to prospective students, employers and the public.”
She said the UUK’s own framework is a “necessary step towards a more transparent sector”.
“Some courses are failing students and taxpayers”
Professor Julia Buckingham CBE, Chair of the Universities UK Curriculum Review Advisory Group
What is a degree worth? Since the Conservative Party pledged to address “low-value degrees” in its 2019 manifesto, universities have faced steady waves of criticism for so-called “Mickey Mouse” degrees. Despite the obvious benefits of a university education – including the £9,500 more a year on average graduates in England earn than non-graduates – and the growing need for highly skilled workers in the public and private sectors, student recruitment has been derided as a rush to get “bums on the seats”, and students who graduate with no clear path to a well-paying profession have been portrayed as misinformed risk takers.
But in reality, UK universities have a world-class reputation for the quality of education they provide and for equipping students with the knowledge, skills and attitudes they need to develop successful and rewarding careers. . Employers are overwhelmingly positive about the wide range of skills graduates bring to the workplace and more than 80% of new graduates who are working or furthering their studies consider their current occupation to be meaningful. But universities can’t and won’t ignore concerns that some courses don’t meet these high standards and are failing students and taxpayers. We will not allow a small minority of courses to damage our world-class reputation, disappoint our students, and undermine the confidence of prospective students, their parents, and the public.
Working with Vice-Chancellors across the country during my term as President of Universities UK, I chaired an advisory group to address these issues. On Sunday we will release a new framework to help universities identify and manage low value degrees. This new framework builds on the work that universities already undertake each year to review their course performance and provides a common approach to determining what counts as good quality and good value. Our guidance highlights basic metrics that universities should consider and that you might expect, including student satisfaction with teaching, assessment, feedback and academic support, achievement rates dropout and graduate career outcomes, but they also go beyond that.
Universities want to support the government upgrading program. We are now encouraging universities to consider measures such as how courses support local businesses and high-growth industries, whether their courses are helping to close achievement gaps between advantaged and disadvantaged students, and whether their graduates go on to jobs. positions that support essential public services. like the NHS, or roles that support the UK’s lucrative creative industries or have a positive impact on the environment.
We are proud that the benefits of going to university are vast, and it is important that they are properly recognized when assessing the value of a university course for the individual student, as well as for the economy and society. Universities don’t believe that success should be measured solely by salary or a narrow view of “graduate jobs” and while we know career opportunities are important for students, most students and graduates (79%) think the government should do more to promote the wider benefits of a degree. It is important that the opinions of students and graduates are fully taken into account, and universities will also take a closer look at whether courses meet students’ expectations before they arrive at university and how graduates view their careers after leave. .
This framework has already been successfully piloted with a group of institutions, and it has the full support of the UUK Board. We hope to use it to work with the government and university regulator – the Student Office – in their reflections on the wider value and contribution of courses.
Universities are committed to identifying and addressing any course that falls short, and by this time next year you should be able to read statements on English university websites detailing the approaches that ‘they adopt each year to monitor, evaluate and take action. on low value courses.
Like any other industry that depends in part on public funding, the need for universities to prove their worth is ongoing. Universities need to be able to clearly communicate why they offer the courses they offer and what the value of those courses is to prospective students, employers and the public. This framework is a necessary step towards a more transparent sector, and Universities UK will support its members at every turn.