Too many young people have been “taken advantage of” and misled by the expansion of courses with no real demand from the labour market, the universities minister has said.
Michelle Donelan has urged universities not to spend widening access funds on “marketing” to get students through the door – but instead to focus on ensuring that graduates secure jobs.
In a speech to the higher education sector, Ms Donelan said for decades too many people have been recruited onto courses that “do nothing to improve their life chances or help with their career goals”.
The universities minister said: “The New Labour access regime has let down too many young people. Since 2004, there’s been too much focus on getting students through the door and not enough focus on how many drop out, or how many go onto graduate jobs.
“Too many have been misled by the expansion of popular-sounding courses with no real demand from the labour market.
“Quite frankly, our young people have been taken advantage of, particularly those without a family history of going to university. Instead, some of them left with the debt of an investment that didn’t pay off in any sense.
“And too many universities have felt pressured to dumb down – either when admitting students, or in the standards of their courses. We have seen this with grade inflation and it has to stop.”
When asked whether universities should make greater use of contextual admissions to widen access amid the coronavirus pandemic, Ms Donelan said: “Universities need to be able to recognise that every individual’s circumstances are different, but we don’t help disadvantaged students by levelling down – we help by levelling up.”
Speaking at the National Education Opportunities Network (NEON) virtual event, the minister called for a “new era” of social mobility.
She said: “Not an era of box-ticking and a focus on marketing, but an era where we’re actually helping improve the life chances of individuals up and down the UK. That’s something that will remain a focus for myself and I am going to ensure it remains a focus for universities.”
She added: “True social mobility is when we put students and their needs and career ambitions first, be that in HE (higher education), FE (further education) or apprenticeships.”
Ms Donelan called on universities to “go further” by ensuring that disadvantaged students are given support to complete degree courses – rather than just admitting those with good grades – and she urged them to go the “extra mile” to raise standards in schools.
“I want your access budgets not to be spent on marketing, but on raising standards, providing the role models, the information, encouraging aspiration and highlighting the high-quality opportunities available,” she said.
In her speech, Ms Donelan did not name any specific university courses which have had little demand from the labour market.
Jo Grady, general secretary of the University and College Union (UCU), said the minister appears to be “trying to turn some students off university by saying it is expensive and substandard”.
She warned that the Government’s “obsession” with graduate earnings as a measure of success “suggests ignorance about the real value of education”, adding that the criticism was “tone-deaf” at a time when workers trained by universities were providing important public services amid the crisis.
Dr Grady said: “For the minister to say students have been left indebted and let down is quite remarkable when the Conservatives are responsible for increasing tuition fee debt and letting the private sector squeeze more and more money out of higher education.
“The Government continues to attempt to pick artificial ‘winners’ in the market it has created, denigrating certain courses and the institutions that offer them without any evidence for doing so.”
Chris Hale, director of policy at Universities UK (UUK), said: “UK higher education has a world-leading reputation and the sector is committed to protecting that in the interests of our students and for the UK generally.
“Students deserve to see benefits from their degrees accumulate over a lifetime and to have qualifications which they can take pride in, while employers and the wider public must continue to have confidence in the strength of our university sector.
“Universities must be accountable for ensuring value for students and respond effectively where there are legitimate challenges around the value of some degrees, and are already addressing many of the issues raised by the minister to ensure we continue to provide the most rewarding and fulfilling experience for students.”