17 July 2023

Government announces student numbers cap for ‘rip-off’ university degrees

17 July 2023

Rishi Sunak has announced plans to cap the number of students that can be accepted on to “poor quality” university degrees in England.

Limits will be imposed on courses that have high dropout rates or a low proportion of graduates getting a professional job, the Government said.

Critics argue the plans are a rehash of previous policy announcements and will make it harder for young people to pursue their aspirations.

The maximum fee that can be charged for classroom-based foundation year courses will also be reduced to £5,760 – down from £9,250 currently – under the measures.

The announcement by the Prime Minister and Education Secretary Gillian Keegan on Monday is part of the Government’s response to the Augar review, established by Theresa May back in 2017.

Among the report’s recommendations – which also included cutting tuition fees and more funding for further education – was an aim to reduce the number of “low value” courses leaving students with poor job prospects.

Under the plans, the Office for Students (OfS) will be asked to limit the number of students universities can recruit on to courses that are seen to fail to deliver good outcomes for graduates.

Education minister Robert Halfon said it was “absolutely not the case” that the policy was an an attack on arts and humanities courses.

But he refused to name any degrees that could be subject to recruitment limits when pressed repeatedly.

When it was put to him that the policy was “woolly”, the senior Tory told ITV’s Good Morning Britain: “It’s a very substantive policy because it focuses on… it could be any course.

“It focuses on individual courses that have poor employment outcomes, that is not woolly at all.

“It could be any particular course, and what we’re doing is making sure that students who leave university have good jobs, good skills at the end.”

The OfS will not be given more powers to cap student numbers, Mr Halfon said.

“We can’t order the OfS to do anything, but we’re guiding the OfS to use the existing powers that it has to ensure that students who come out of university get good skills and get good jobs at the end,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

The Government said classroom-based foundation year courses – an additional year of study designed to help prepare students for degrees with specific entry requirements, such as medicine – are being encouraged in subjects where it is unnecessary.

It has pledged to work to make it easier for people to assess the quality of university courses, including their earnings potential, to make informed decisions about their higher education.

The Prime Minister said: “The UK is home to some of the best universities in the world and studying for a degree can be immensely rewarding.

“But too many young people are being sold a false dream and end up doing a poor quality course at the taxpayers’ expense that doesn’t offer the prospect of a decent job at the end of it.

“That is why we are taking action to crack down on rip-off university courses, while boosting skills training and apprenticeships provision.

“This will help more young people to choose the path that is right to help them reach their potential and grow our economy.”

Ms Keegan said: “These new measures will crack down on higher education providers that continue to offer poor quality courses and send a clear signal that we will not allow students to be sold a false promise.

“Wherever they choose to study, it is vital students can gain the skills needed to get great jobs and succeed – supporting the Prime Minister’s priority to grow our economy.”

Philip Augar, chair of the independent review of post-18 education and funding, said: “This is another strong signal for universities to control such recruitment as is not in students’ best interests and I hope the sector responds constructively.”

This is simply an attack on the aspirations of young people and their families by a Government that wants to reinforce the class ceiling, not smash it

Opposition MPs attacked the measures as a “cap on aspiration” that will restrict choice for young people.

Shadow education secretary Bridget Phillipson said: “This is simply an attack on the aspirations of young people and their families by a Government that wants to reinforce the class ceiling, not smash it.

“The Conservatives’ appalling record on apprenticeships means it can’t be trusted to deliver the overhaul that our young people need, and (the) new role for the Office for Students will be to put up fresh barriers to opportunity in areas with fewer graduate jobs.

“Labour will enable our young people to seize the opportunities of the future through our reforms of the skills system and higher education funding – your background will be no barrier to getting on under a Labour government.”

Munira Wilson, the Liberal Democrats’ education spokesperson, said: “Rishi Sunak is so out of ideas that he’s dug up a new version of a policy the Conservatives have announced and then unannounced twice over.

“Universities don’t want this. It’s a cap on aspiration, making it harder for young people from disadvantaged backgrounds to go on to further study.”

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