‘Rip-off’ HE student cap a ‘worry’ for colleges

Recruitment limits, foundation year fee cuts and a new website for apprenticeships have been announced

Recruitment limits, foundation year fee cuts and a new website for apprenticeships have been announced

17 Jul 2023, 13:08

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Plans to restrict student numbers on higher education courses with poor student outcomes could disproportionately hit non-traditional students, the Association of Colleges has warned. 

Ministers today claimed that “too many” young people are taking university-level courses that have high drop-out rates and don’t lead to high-paid jobs. They have asked the Office for Students (OfS), the higher education regulator, to restrict how many students universities, colleges and other HE providers can recruit to courses with “poor” outcomes. 

Government figures show that nearly three in ten graduates do not go on to further study or get a highly skilled job 15 months after graduating.

Prime minister Rishi Sunak said: “Too many young people are being sold a false dream and ending 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 is the latest policy response to the review of post-18 education and training, led by Philip Augar, and comes four years after the landmark review published its recommendations.

But David Hughes, chief executive of the Association of Colleges (AoC), told FE Week he is “worried” the government’s plans to clamp down on recruitment will hit courses with non-traditional intakes.

“I think the potential for these proposals to hit older learners and part-time learners is high, and that’s because of the way outcomes are measured. We all want really good outcomes for all learners at all levels. It’s how you measure those outcomes fairly taking into account context, geography and labour markets that’s the real difficulty here.

“I am worried about what this might do for some providers, universities and colleges, and for certain groups of learners, particularly those who are less likely to progress into very high-paid jobs.”

Existing powers

The OfS already has some powers to investigate and intervene in HE providers that underperform against its student outcome thresholds. These cover measures for continuation, completion and progression. 

If the regulator isn’t satisfied, it can impose conditions on the provider’s OfS registration and demand monitored improvement plans and, as has happened in several FE colleges already, impose recruitment restrictions. 

The Department for Education confirmed that the OfS will be issued with statutory guidance directing it to impose recruitment limits on providers with provision found to be in breach of its student outcomes registration condition (B3). 

It also confirmed that the OfS will continue to publish the outcomes of investigations where B3 is breached.

‘Boosting’ uni alternatives

The government also said today it will cut the steps employers currently need to take in order to recruit an apprentice “by a third” and allow “expert” providers to take on more of the admin burden. Small employers will also be able to backdate apprentices’ start dates by up to one month.

It pointed to its rollout of new higher technical qualifications, Institutes of Technology and the upcoming lifelong loan entitlement as “high-quality” alternatives to degrees, alongside apprenticeships. 

Employers and prospective students will be able to access a single source of information on apprenticeships, T Levels, bootcamps and other skills courses. 

The DfE said its new website, which will be developed in-house within existing budgets, will signpost users to existing information and services. 

Foundation year fee cut

The Augar review was critical of the use of foundation year programmes to recruit students, often in competition with Access to HE courses which it argued offered students better value for money. 

“It is hard not to conclude that universities are using foundation years to create four-year degrees in order to entice students who do not otherwise meet their standard entry criteria,” the review said.

In response, the government has announced it will slash to the tuition fee cap that universities can charge for foundation years from £9,250 to £5,760. 

Alison Wolf, who served on the post-18 review panel, said she was “delighted that the government has introduced reforms for foundation year courses, whose current meteoric growth is hard to justify educationally or in cost terms”.

“Aligning their fees explicitly with college-based access courses should also promote the greater alignment of further and higher education to which the government is, rightly, committed,” she added.

Bridget Phillipson, the shadow education secretary, described today’s announcements as “an attack on the aspirations of young people and their families.

“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.”

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