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'Attack on aspirations': Rishi Sunak to crack down on 'low value' university degrees

Rishi Sunak wants to limit access to university degrees which don't result in high employment rates for graduates <i>(Image: Kevin Lamarque)</i>
Rishi Sunak wants to limit access to university degrees which don't result in high employment rates for graduates (Image: Kevin Lamarque)

RISHI Sunak has announced plans to crack down on the number of students undertaking “low value” degrees that don’t lead to employment.

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

However, critics have argued that this will make it more difficult for young people to pursue their aspirations – particularly in subjects that don’t necessarily lead to “professional” employment, such as arts and humanities.

The maximum fee that can be charged for classroom-based foundation year courses will also be reduced to £5760 – down from £9250 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 onto 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 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.

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“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, Halfon added.

“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 UK 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.

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“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.”

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.”