In July, the Department for Education announced plans to cap universities accepting students for “rip-off” degrees, as identified by excessive drop-out rates and low employment records post-graduation. At the University of Sussex, targeted courses will see a drop in their student numbers and possibly their funding.
According to the Office for Students, the independent regulator of higher education in England, nearly three in ten graduates fail to progress into highly skilled jobs or further study within 15 months of graduation. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has also estimated that one in five graduates would be better off financially if they never went to university.
The government also planned to launch a new digital platform this autumn which would allow students to assess the quality of courses with greater transparency. This is responding to Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s claim in the press release of these plans that universities are selling “a false dream” to young people. No such platform has yet been realised, however.
The plans show a significant shift in Conservative policy under Sunak compared to past Prime Ministers. In 2015, the cap on university admissions was lifted, leading to a record number of admissions that year – 532,300 students. In 2023, limits on higher education admissions are being reintroduced.
The approach is being justified as making the tax burden fairer on the British public, by lowering funding for costly degrees offering minimal return. In the government press release, Sunak describes these as “poor-quality course[s] at the taxpayers’ expense”.
Another aspect of the crackdown is the reform of foundation year courses, with the maximum fee for classroom-based foundation years decreasing from £9,250 to £5,760. Foundation years teach highly valued skills prior to doing a degree and can therefore help stimulate employment. In July, Russell Group Chief Executive, Tim Bradshaw, stated on the Russell Group website he is “glad the Government listened to [Russell Group] concerns to ensure these courses remain viable”.
These reforms also seek to make the cost of higher education better reflect its rewards upon students’ graduation. Baroness Alison Wolf, a panel member of the independent Post-18 Review, whose report in May 2019 helped prompt these reforms, criticised in the press release the “meteoric growth” of foundation years, saying it “is hard to justify educationally or in cost terms”.
The government reforms aim to grow the economy, creating a more skilled workforce and fewer graduates left unemployed and in debt. This will allegedly allow for more investment in educational areas that the government deems of greater value. This priority has been reflected in the 2020 launch of “T levels”, a technical-based alternative to A Levels for 16-19 year olds.
The government is also promoting apprenticeships as the alternative to “rip-off” degrees. There are plans to expand UCAS so students can apply for apprenticeships alongside traditional degrees in 2024. Jane Gratton, Head of People Policy for the British Chambers of Commerce, emphasised in the government press release that “[apprenticeships] are key to boosting technical skills in the workforce”.
These plans have their opponents. Many have argued that the new policy disproportionately affects those from disadvantaged backgrounds, diminishing the opportunity for social mobility offered by higher education. Labour has described the policy as a classist, restrictive measure. Shadow Education Secretary, Bridget Phillipson, describes “a Government that wants to reinforce the class ceiling, not smash it” as reported by The i. The Standard reported that a Labour spokesperson sees the plans as “yet more barriers to young people’s aspirations”.
In July, William Davies pointed out in The Guardian that the government is incorrectly treating higher education as a competitive economic market, resulting in “futile efforts to discipline and correct it”, seen in thirteen years of U-turns in education policy. Davies is also critical of Philip Augar, chair of the Post-18 Review independent panel. He says Augar gave the government a basis to “attack the humanities,” arguing that this policy specifically limits the typically liberal aligned humanities subjects.
Public reaction has been mixed. Times Higher Education reported in November on a YouGov poll that showed, from a pool of 1,066 adult Londoners, 33% support the plans, 33% oppose and 34% are neutral. Within this, 12% strongly supported it, while 19% strongly opposed, showing a reasonably even divide in opinion.
As of 2020-21 figures, approximately 18,500 students study at the University of Sussex. 20% of these are postgraduates and 30% are overseas students. How these numbers are changing following the reforms is yet to be seen – whether there is a surge in foundation year courses or the predicted drop for the humanities.