'Mickey Mouse' university courses could have student loans removed

·7-min read
'Minimum requirements' incoming for what is expected of degree courses in terms of student outcomes - Patrick Ward/The Image Bank Unreleased
'Minimum requirements' incoming for what is expected of degree courses in terms of student outcomes - Patrick Ward/The Image Bank Unreleased

Universities are facing a crackdown on “Mickey Mouse” degrees as the watchdog threatens to withdraw student loan funding from low-quality courses.

Vice-chancellors will be warned by the Office for Students (OfS) that they risk being hit with sanctions - including financial penalties - if their degrees fail to deliver for students.

The higher education regulator had pledged to take a more “robust” approach to quality assurance, which will include launching investigations where bad practice is reported.

Degrees with high drop-out rates and low rates of graduate employment will be targeted by the OfS for scrutiny.

The regulator will publish proposals this week which set out the series of “minimum requirements” they expect degree courses to meet in terms of student outcomes.

If courses are deemed to consistently fall below these they could be barred from receiving student loan funding which would most likely render 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 courses that are below par, and our new plans – to be published this week – will be setting out how we intend to do this.”

Concerns over cost to taxpayer

Whitehall officials are concerned at the cost to the taxpayer of the increasing number of pupils who take up a place at university, but fail to earn enough to pay back their student loan.

Ministers have been particularly critical of so-called "Mickey Mouse" degrees which saddle students with debt but add little to their job prospects, and have previously accused universities of running “threadbare” courses in a rush to get “bums on seats”.

It comes as Universities UK (UUK), the vice-chancellor membership group, launches its own framework aimed at tackling low-quality degrees.

Prof Julia Buckingham, the former UUK president who chaired the organisation’s advisory group on the issue, acknowledged that universities “have faced regular waves of criticisms for so-called Mickey Mouse degrees”.

She told The Telegraph: “Universities cannot and will not ignore concerns that some courses do not meet these high standards and let down students and taxpayers.

“We will not allow a small minority of courses to damage our world-class reputation, let down our students and dent the confidence of prospective students, their parents and the public.”

Research by the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) showed that almost eight in 10 graduates will never pay back their full student loan under the current tuition fees system.

Creative arts cost taxpayer most

The think-tank found that arts graduates cost the taxpayer £35,000 each with degrees in “creative arts” subjects - which includes Music, Drama, Fine Art and Design Studies – the most costly to the taxpayer since so few alumni earn enough money to pay back their student loan in full.

Of the £9 billion that the government spends on higher education each year, more than £1 billion is on creative arts courses alone, where three-quarters of the total amount dished out in loans is picked up by the taxpayer, the IFS report from 2019 found.

The higher education regulator said it will not accept the argument that students from disadvantaged backgrounds are less likely to get a good job after graduating.

It has made it clear that “minimum requirements” it will set for student outcomes will not be dropped down for universities which admit a high proportion of undergraduates from deprived households.

Ministers are preparing to publish their long-awaited response to an official review of higher education, known as the Augar review, in the coming months.

Led by Sir Philip Augar, the former equities broker, the review was the first one since 1963 that the Government ordered into higher and further education.

Prof Buckingham said: “Just like any other sector which is partly reliant on public funding, the need for universities to prove their worth is continuous.

“Universities must be able to communicate clearly why they offer the courses they do, and what the value of those courses is to prospective students, employers and the public.”

She said that UUK’s own framework is a “necessary step towards a more transparent sector”.

'Some courses let down students and taxpayers'

Professor Julia Buckingham CBE, chairman of Universities UK’s advisory group for programme reviews

What is a degree worth? Since the Conservative Party pledged to deal with ‘low value degrees’ in their 2019 manifesto, universities have faced regular waves of criticisms for so-called “Mickey Mouse” degrees. Despite the clear benefits of a university education – including the £9,500 more per year on average graduates in England earn compared with non-graduates – and the growing need for highly skilled workers in the public and private sectors, student recruitment has been ridiculed as a rush to get “bums on seats”, and students taking degrees without a clear path to a well-paid profession have been painted as ill-informed risk takers.

But in reality, UK universities enjoy a world-class reputation for the quality of the 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 broad range of skills graduates bring to the workplace and over 80% of new graduates in work or further study see their current activity as meaningful. But universities cannot and will not ignore concerns that some courses do not meet these high standards and let down students and taxpayers. We will not allow a small minority of courses to damage our world-class reputation, let down our students and dent the confidence of prospective students, their parents and the public.

Working with vice-chancellors across the country during my time as President of Universities UK, I chaired an advisory group to address these issues. On Monday, we will publish a new framework to help universities identify and deal with low value degrees. This new framework builds on the work universities already undertake each year to look at the performance of their courses, and provides a common approach to determining what counts as good quality and good value. Our guidance highlights core measures universities should be considering, and which you might expect, including student satisfaction with teaching, assessment, feedback and academic support, ‘drop-out’ rates and career outcomes for graduates, but they go further than this too.

Universities want to support the Government’s levelling-up agenda. We’re now encouraging universities to consider measures such as how courses support local businesses and high-growth industries, if their courses are helping to close attainment gaps between advantaged and disadvantaged students, and whether their graduates are working in roles which support essential public services such as the NHS, or roles which 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 wide-ranging, and it is important that they are properly recognised when assessing the value of a university degree course to the individual student, as well as to the economy and society. Universities do not believe that success should be measured by salary or narrow views of ‘graduate jobs’ alone and, while we know that career opportunities are important to students, most students and recent graduates (79%) think the Government should do more to promote the broader benefits of a degree. It’s important that student and graduate views are fully considered, and universities will also be looking more closely at whether courses meet the expectations of students before they arrived at university and how graduates view their careers after the leave.

This framework has already been successfully piloted with a group of institutions, and it has the full backing of the UUK Board. We hope to use it to work together with the Government and the university regulator – the Office for Students – in their reflections on the wider value and contribution of courses.

Universities are committed to identifying and tackling any course which isn’t up to scratch, and by this time next year, you should be able to read statements on English university websites detailing the approaches they are taking annually in monitoring, assessing, and taking action on low-value courses.

Just like any other sector which is partly reliant on public funding, the need for universities to prove their worth is continuous. Universities must be able to communicate clearly why they offer the courses they do, 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 be supporting its members at every turn.

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