University regulator cracks down on ‘poor quality’ courses in England

Universities and colleges in England that fail to meet standards on dropout rates and graduate employment could lose out on funding, under “tough” new measures proposed by the regulator.

The Office for Students, which oversees quality in higher education, on Thursday announced strict thresholds that it proposes institutions must meet to avoid investigation and potential restrictions on access to student loan funding.

The plans are part of government efforts to “crack down” on courses deemed “low quality”, as it promises to “rebalance” the higher education landscape and impose tighter controls on university spending.

Universities said they would work with the OfS to ensure delivery of “high quality” courses, but said that outcomes suggested by the regulator were “not the only markers of value”.

“Universities should also consider how courses contribute to public services such as the NHS, to business creation and skills needs in local areas, and their contribution to cultural activity and the environment,” said Alistair Jarvis, chief executive of Universities UK, a body that represents the sector.

The University and College Union, which represents staff in higher education, said the measures would target courses that help to widen participation and warned institutions could stop admitting students deemed “unlikely to progress” to avoid sanctions.

“The proposals . . . will harm the very students they are ostensibly designed to help,” said Jo Grady, UCU general secretary.

Earlier this week, Universities UK released its own guidelines on how universities can monitor course quality, by considering factors such as student wellbeing before and after graduation and impact on business productivity.

The body cited the OfS showing 94 per cent of students considered teaching quality “very important” in demonstrating the value of a degree, compared with 65 per cent who believed securing a job shortly after graduation was important.

Under the OfS proposals, universities will need to show that 80 per cent of students continue into their second year of study, and three quarters complete their qualification.

It said 60 per cent of students should enter employment or further study after their degree. Thresholds could be applied to institutions as a whole or individual courses, the regulator added.

Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of the OfS, said the proposals were a “landmark moment” in tackling “poor quality provision”. The regulator would consider responses to the plans during a consultation running from January 20 to March 17.

“We are clear that we are raising our expectations,” she said. “Low quality courses which led to poor outcomes for students are unacceptable, and we are determined to take action where students are recruited on to courses which offer few tangible benefits.”

Analysis of university data by OfS found that each year about 3 per cent of students start courses that fail to meet the proposed graduation threshold.

Around 2 per cent of students — 3,000 in total, at 55 providers — had gained qualifications at providers that were not hitting the regulator’s target for graduate employment.

Rachel Hewitt, chief executive of Million Plus, which represents modern universities, including former colleges and polytechnics, said members were “really committed” to maintaining quality.

But she said members were concerned about judging institutions based on historic data, as well as regional differences in job prospects and economic shocks that universities were powerless to control.

Michelle Donelan, higher and further education minister, said it was necessary to “crack down” on universities that were not delivering.

“Our university system is acclaimed as world class, but there are too many pockets of poor quality,” she said.


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