Rip-off degrees, social engineering and feeding public opinion ‘raw meat’

The headline ’Crackdown on rip-off university degrees’ that came directly from the UK government today was more about directing public opinion than it was about new policy. The powers to act on universities already exist and they may simply be about to be used more liberally. There has been a bad reaction in many quarters. Mostly this has revolved around the negative impact on the least advantaged students that is going to be profound. With the campaign to divert these students away from university degrees and into technical training gaining momentum, it seems the ‘social engineering’ plan is now well advanced.

Back in April, TEFS observed that ‘Government policy sacrifices university education at the altar of public opinion’.  Evidence was mounting that the incessant university bashing was continuing with little regard for the consequences.  The conclusion was,

“They are forming public opinion to suit their agenda. Accusations of ‘Mickey Mouse’ degrees, low value courses, and lack of care for disadvantaged students are spewed out on a regular basis.  Mix this with pride in our best institutions, and their role in technology advances on a world stage, and confusion sets in. You cannot have it both ways. The tragedy is that this will backfire”.

Crackdown on rip-off university degrees and feeding raw meat to the dogs of public opinion.

In its official announcement the Department for Education (DfE) stressed that,

“University courses that fail to deliver good outcomes, with high drop-out rates and poor employment prospects will be subject to strict controls”….”That is why we are taking action to crack down on rip-off university courses, while boosting skills training and apprenticeships provision”.

The Daily Mail observed that the move will “begin to correct a cruel deception which has gone on for far too long” and Gillian Keegan, the current Education Secretary protested “it’s not fair if students are saddled with a degree that’s not worth the paper it’s written on.” In a similar vein, Rishi Sunak argued in the Telegraph that some young people are being “ripped off” because they’re dissuaded from pursuing more vocational options, and are led to believe that university is the “only route to success”.

Official Department for Education (DfE) in surprise terminology.

Many might assume that the headlines in the usual suspect newspapers were concocted from their own imaginations and prejudices, but they would be wrong. The term ‘rip-off’ was first produced in an official DfE announcement. Then the slogan in the picture with this post above came directly from Rishi Sunak in a Twitter post. This reinforces the idea that it’s not so much about policy, but about feeding ‘raw meat’ to Conservative voters in the run up to an election.

The chair of Universities UK has responded with a guarded statement saying that,

“In England, the Office for Students already has the power to impose recruitment limits on courses which breach certain minimum thresholds for continuation, progression, and completion. The vast majority of courses exceed these thresholds so any measures by government need to be targeted and proportionate, and not a sledgehammer to crack a nut.”

It seems he did not see the Tweet from Sunak in advance and may not have used the sledgehammer metaphor if he had.

Fallout from Augar and the 2022 consultation.

What was announced today is the response to a consultation started back in February 2022, the ‘Higher education policy statement & reform consultation’.  The response just out has raised a few eyebrows, but there is not much that is new or unexpected for the universities as they braced themselves for the fallout from the original Augar review as far back as May 2019 (see TEFS 30th May 2019 ‘Augar stirs up the system: The ripples will go far beyond his remit’).  It has taken a long time to come this far, but restricting student numbers was always likely.  Now it seems inevitable.

Instead, much of the focus has been on preventing the growth of provision with poor outcomes whereby,

“The government has decided that, in order to prevent the growth of low-quality provision, we will issue statutory guidance to the OfS setting out that it should impose recruitment limits”

This will happen on a short timeline and the OfS is expecting to publish the outcomes of its first B3 investigations by Autumn of this year  (See Condition B3 of the Office for Students’ for and below for the context).

Reputational damage.

That such crude invective will backfire is in little doubt. The lurid headlines about ‘rip off’ degrees will spread in media around the world. The reputational damage caused across the UK is not too difficult to imagine. It will spill over outside of England regardless. It’s no use assuming that even our best universities can continue to bask in their own reputational premium in the face of such an onslaught.  They too will be counting the cost and looking at their degree provision.

Astounding admission of a failed policy.

What the current government cannot get away from is that it has been in power for thirteen years and devised the higher education policies that led to the apparent existence of ‘rip-off’ degrees.  The incoming government in 2010 set about removing the cap on student numbers in England and set higher fees to be paid back through loan repayments. Direct funding for teaching was phased out in an attempt to foster a marketplace in degree provision. This failed immediately and it became a false market whereby all ‘providers’ tried to maximise income by piling their offering high. But they did not need to sell cheap as the maximum fee level was fixed. A market is all about maximising profit and is very simple to understand. That’s exactly what happened.

Ensuring equality and fairness: are student number caps a bad thing?

The simple answer is no. Student number caps are still in operation in Northern Ireland and Scotland. In Northern Ireland, the fee level is much lower and there are no fees for students in Scotland. Indeed, caps on student numbers was the norm for many years across the UK before changes made in England and since 2010. It makes sense to plan for the number of graduates needed and to calculate what it will cost. Student number caps set at relatively high levels were always possible and sensible. However, allowing unplanned expansion was not a good idea, even if it widened access to some degrees.

But the root problem was not so much numbers but how to ensure fair access to students from less affluent backgrounds. That is a very different problem and should not be mixed up with raw numbers. It is no surprise that it is the impact of the current strictures on these students that has attracted the most criticism. The simple fact is that post-92 universities take on a greater proportion of less affluent students from lower participation neighbourhoods. They will bear the brunt of any cuts to come, and the effect will widen the access and participation gap between the least and most well off.

Indeed the government’s own ‘Equality Analysis’ appears to accept it is inevitable but is very complacent and superficial in its analysis. Many others will challenge this with considerable detail in the coming months.

In the meantime, the ‘social engineering’ agenda is on view with the conclusion that having no degree is a better outcome.

“For some students, entering HE with generally poor student outcomes could still have led to better outcomes than if they had not entered HE at all”.

One apparently small change designed to impact the less well-off is the reduction of the maximum fee for classroom-based foundation year courses to £5,760 – down from £9,250. It is accepted there would be an effect as courses were dropped and again,

“If this policy achieves its objective and leads to providers scaling back or withdrawing their classroom-based foundation year provision, we believe that there are alternatives to foundation years that offer students suitable alternative routes to HE”.

The alternatives include Higher Technical Qualifications (HTQs) and even simply retaking A-levels. The aim appears to be to cut off one valid route and deter students from university degree courses. That might work for the less advantaged, but the well off know better.

But is there anything really new here?

When the dust settles, many universities will realise that there’s little new in the announcement today. The OfS already has powers to sanction universities about their degree outcomes in the latest ‘Securing student success: Regulatory framework for higher education in England 24 November 2022’. Hidden in a long document, Section 175 has a very general provision that does not specify what they might do.

“To specify action to be taken before the provider can undertake an activity. For example, where there have been poor employability rates of students at a provider, a specific ongoing condition could require the provider to improve its employment outcomes before it can increase the number of students it recruits.”

Although not specified, this implies any action is possible, and cutting numbers, even cutting fees, could be on the table. The government is moving on this today and hopes it will win votes from the ‘too many students’ lobby. They may come to regret being right if that is the case.

Where are the most vulnerable degrees?

David Kernohan of Wonkhe has produced a highly informative visual tool analysing the data for different degrees at each university from the OfS dashboard, covering continuation, completion, and progression from 2017 to 2020.  It can be used to ‘light up’ universities providing degrees with relatively lesser outcomes.

Condition B3 of the Office for Students’ (OfS’s) regulatory framework requires that:

 “The provider must deliver successful outcomes for all of its students, which are recognised and valued by employers, and/or enable further study.”

Each Institution has a baseline expectation for each group of subjects.  On looking more closely, it becomes very apparent that many post 92 universities are close to, or below, the expected baselines on progression and continuation (expressed as percentages of total students).  If the value of a degree is to be determined solely on these criteria, then it’s obvious where the targets reside.  Shifting the baselines up a few notches and all hell would break lose. We might expect that to happen if the desired cut in numbers doesn’t immediately materialise. All of that would confirm that the OfS is far from being ‘independent’ as a regulator.

How will universities respond?

The answer is that they are already responding. All university managements, including Russell Group and pre-92 universities, will have pored over their own data, and started to crystallize a strategy. But they have a dilemma and two general options open. Firstly, hold out in the hope a new government will emerged with a radical change of direction for universities or, secondly, simply cut the most vulnerable courses and make redundancies. The latter is always very messy when students in the middle of their course will have to continue as staff are phased out over three years or so. The last one out the door would have to lock up. But not before considerable disruption of student protests and strike action by staff.

Looking through the OfS data for student progression and continuation on different degree subjects is enough to see that many arts and humanities and business courses will be vulnerable. Indeed, there are many others looking over their shoulders. Rather than suffer the ignominy of being chastised with the public sanction of fewer students, most institutions will opt to make cuts or devise clever wheezes. Having fees and income cut is not an option.

Last word.

The parody Twitter feed ‘Bantshire University’ as always captures the essence of university managements with a neat sidestep,

 “NEWS: We’re dropping our ‘Business Foundation Year’ (£5,760pa) in favour of our new four-year ‘Business BA with Foundations in Business’ (£9,250pa)”

Enough said!

The author, Mike Larkin, retired from Queen’s University Belfast after 37 years teaching Microbiology, Biochemistry and Genetics.

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