University Sector News by Professor Barnaby Lenon

The Skills for Jobs White Paper published in early 2021 and the Lifetime Loan Entitlement (LLE) consultation (closes May 2022) set out the government’s plan for how people will be provided with a loan entitlement equivalent to four years of post-18 education to use over their lifetime

This February saw a further raft of changes to Government policies about universities.

1) PQA plans scrapped

The Government has abandoned their view that students should apply to university only after they get their A-level results. This was Gavin Williamson’s great idea – he claimed PQA (post-qualification applications) would help disadvantaged pupils. But most people who actually know what goes on in schools thought this was wrong.

* The number of pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds going to university has been rising fast.

* There is no evidence that many pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds get under-estimated A-level predictions from their schools. Even those few who do can ‘trade-up’ through UCAS these days.

* Doing your UCAS application in the summer holidays after your results are known would in fact help those with informed, middle-class parents.

* UCAS themselves were very opposed to the idea.

2) Student loans made more expensive

Only a quarter of university students fully repay their loans. These loans are then repaid by the British taxpayer. Without action now, the student loan book will be at half a trillion pounds by 2043. Taxpayers – most of whom have not been to university themselves – are funding 44 pence of every pound of student loans issued to full-time undergraduates. It is totally unsustainable.

So, from the 2023 entry the students themselves have got to carry more of the burden.

At present students only start to repay their loans when their pay reaches £27,295 p.a. This figure is being cut to £25,000 p.a.

At present students only repay their loans for 30 years, after which they are written off. This figure will now by 40 years.

Students have to pay pretty steep interest rates on their loans; these are being cut.

Tuition fees are fixed at £9250 until 2025. Of course, students have to pay maintenance costs (housing, etc) on top of this. This could be £45,000 over three years. Because of interest, that could mean repaying £100,000 over forty years. Graduates will effectively lose 9% of their salary every month for almost their entire working lives, on top of the 1.25% social care levy starting in April.

These higher costs will disadvantage those whose parents cannot help them or those whose salaries do not enable them to pay back the loan quickly.

3) Entry bars (minimum eligibility requirements) may be introduced to limit who can get loans

The Government is concerned that too many students are doing courses at university that do not benefit them in terms of lifetime earnings. Many of these are students have weak GCSE and A-level grades and go to weak universities to study courses like creative arts.

SO, they are consulting on the proposal that students will not be eligible for a student loan if they have not:

  • passed GCSE English and maths
  • got at least EE grades at A-level

Degree quality checks are being planned

The Office for Students is partway through a series of consultations on its regulatory approach to quality and standards. The refreshed approach aims to enable the OfS to intervene more regularly in those cases where there is evidence that quality and standards fall below expectations and require improvement.

4) Student number controls may come in (being consulted on)

SNCs could potentially be a significant method for prioritising provision with the best outcomes and preventing a ‘race to the bottom’, whereby some providers are incentivised to compete by offering low cost, low value provision, rather than courses which deliver good outcomes for students and for the nation.

SNCs were removed for all subjects in 2015/16, except for medical and dental degrees, where grant funding for places has continued to be limited using an intake target, owing to the very high cost of delivering these courses. These limits were temporarily relaxed in 2020 and 2021 due to the unprecedented impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on A-level exams.

The current system has sometimes incentivised Approved (fee cap) providers to recruit more students onto courses which are less expensive to teach, while still charging the maximum fee limit, whilst higher cost subjects, including strategically important STEM degrees, have become less attractive to some providers. More generally, the maximum fee limit has been charged by default.

Some providers had also engaged in risky borrowing based on an optimistic forecast of the student population. Practices aimed at maximising intake have included cash and in-kind inducements for students.

SNCs could potentially be introduced to limit the entry of students into provision which has offered poor outcomes.

Approaches could include:

  • Overall student numbers could be controlled at sector level, where individual providers are set the total number of students they can recruit, as their share of the aggregate total.
  • Individual providers could be set the total number of students they can recruit, with provision for certain subjects (to be agreed based on a set of criteria or metrics) allowed to continue to grow.
  • Individual providers could be set the total number of students they can recruit for certain subjects, based on an assessment of student/graduate outcomes for each subject, at a national level.
  • Individual providers could be set the total number of students they can recruit, for certain subjects, based on an assessment of student/graduate outcomes at each individual provider. This would mean that each provider’s student number control was based on all student/ graduate outcomes for that provider.

These outcomes might be divided into three broad and related categories, none of which should be considered in isolation:

Quantifiable: These are outcomes with quantifiable and measurable returns for students, taxpayers, and the economy such as:

  • Earnings, which supports the fiscal sustainability of the system given its link to student loan repayments.
  • Progression to high skilled graduate employment.
  • Completion or continuation rates.

Societal: These are outcomes that may have less favourable measurable returns but present clear benefits for society as a whole such as:

  • Education and teaching.
  • Medical and healthcare.

Strategically important: These are outcomes with a forward focus, that contribute to the strategic priorities of Government, and underpin future economic growth and stability, contributing as well to the greater good of the nation. An example would be zero carbon.

5) New Higher Technical Qualifications (HTQs)

A-levels are level 3 courses. A BA degree is level 6. There is a big shortage of people with level 4 and 5 qualifications including in IT, engineering, and medical roles. People with these qualifications can earn good salaries.

New Higher Technical Qualifications (HTQs) will be level 4 and 5 qualifications approved by the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education, drawing on the advice of their employer panels. They will be offered by further education colleges, universities, independent providers, and Institutes of Technology.

Approved courses:

  • Digital HTQs (many different courses)
  • Being considered:
  • Construction
  • Health & Science
  • Business & Administration
  • Education & Childcare
  • Engineering & Manufacturing
  • Legal, Finance & Accounting
  • Agriculture, Environmental & Animal Care
  • Catering & Hospitality
  • Creative & Design
  • Hair & Beauty

The student finance package for HTQs will be put on a par with degrees, from academic year 2023/24. This means extending student finance access for HTQs and allowing learners studying HTQs part-time to access maintenance loans, as they can with degrees.

6) Foundation year courses should be cheaper

In preparation for undertaking a HE course, some students without the necessary prior attainment or required prior subject knowledge choose to undertake a foundation year. Provided that the course within which the foundation year is integrated is itself designated for student finance, the foundation year is also eligible for the normal package of tuition fee and maintenance loans.

Foundation courses are often taken by disadvantaged pupils whose education may have been disrupted. So, the government thinks it is unfair that students are being charged up to £9,250 to access foundation years, when equivalent provision is offered elsewhere (Access courses) for only just over half of this price. They propose that, in future, both the maximum tuition fees and loans for foundation years and for Access to HE courses should be the same, with foundation year fees dropping, in the first instance, to align with Access to HE diploma fees (where the current maximum fee is £5,197).

So, what does all this mean?  Probably the shrinkage of smaller, weaker universities and the closure of some. A strong focus on OfS metrics. A greater emphasis on vocational courses such as education and health. The growth of FE Colleges and level 4/5 courses. The end to non-stop university expansion.

Professor Barnaby J. Lenon, Dean of Education, University of Buckingham


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