Michelle Donelan MP is Minister of State for Higher and Further Education.
When I was first appointed Universities Minister in 2019 I saw it as a tremendous opportunity. Not only because we have some of the best universities in the world, which we rightly celebrate, but because it would allow me to properly tackle the pockets of low-quality teaching that are less good.
We have all read the headlines about “Mickey Mouse” courses, sky-high drop out rates and courses that offer only a couple of hours of contact time a week. And when students are paying £9,250 a year, that is simply not acceptable.
So, this week, with the Office for Students (OfS), I have taken serious steps to stamp out these low-quality courses. For the first time, we will be setting tough minimum requirements for drop-out rates and progression to graduate jobs – enforced by fines and, ultimately, withdrawal of student finance. We will also be clearly labelling universities that are not up to scratch as “Requires Improvement” – while ensuring that our institutions with the best teaching are properly celebrated.
If we want people to be able to seize the advantage of the opportunities this country has to offer then we must give them the skills they need to succeed. Report after report has been written about the UK’s historic underinvestment in technical and vocational skills, the declining graduate premium and the need to rebalance the emphasis we place on higher and further education. Since being appointed to my new role last year, as Minister for both Higher and Further Education, addressing these challenges has been at the heart of my mission since I was appointed.
Like many people who were the first in their family to go to university, for me, university was about more than learning. Breaking through the barriers of background and geography, it was an experience that gave me the confidence to go out into the world knowing I had a world-class, high-quality education under my belt.
This is not just my experience; it is the experience of millions of others, including hundreds of thousands this year. After all, Britain is home to four of the top 10 universities in the world.
But as I have said many times, we need to stop the obsession about whether more or fewer people are going to university, and instead focus on getting people on to high quality, worthwhile programmes that will genuinely give them the skills they need to succeed in life – whether that is at a university, a college or on an apprenticeship. Universities my be great, thumping engines of social mobility – but they are far from the only route.
This Government is offering a Lifetime Skills Guarantee to help people train and retrain – at any stage in their lives. Last year, we published our Skills for Jobs White Paper, putting employers at the heart of our education system. Whether it is a record investment in our Further Education Colleges, establishing 21 Institutes of Technology to deliver advanced technical STEM courses, doubling the spending on apprenticeships since 2010 or setting up bootcamps to train another 10,000 new HGV drivers, we are delivering on that promise.
Looking forward, our Lifelong Loan Entitlement will, from 2025, make it as easy to get a student loan to do a year of electrical engineering at an FE college as it is to get a loan to do a three year degree in politics, opening up retraining opportunities to millions.
I am also determined to tackle the weak spots in our universities. As we all know, there are pockets of poor quality – the so-called “Mickey Mouse” degrees – that if they continue to proliferate, risk undermining the huge progress in social mobility that we have already made. Right now, at 25 universities and other providers, less than half of students who begin a degree can expect to graduate and find professional employment or further study within 15 months.
This is not about any particular subject. Whether it is music or mathematics, film studies or philosophy, engineering or economics, courses can be taught well or badly. For example, many students and parents do not know that while many universities offer computing courses with a drop-out rate of less than 15 per cent, there are still eight universities offering computing courses with drop-out rates above 40 per cent. In fact, it is not just the general public who are unaware of this, even students enrolled on these courses often have no idea that they have signed up to a poor quality programme.
What message does that send to those students who, like me all those years ago, do not have a long line of family members who went to university to advise them? I know for certain that I would not want my children on that kind of course, and I have no doubt that most people would feel the same as me.
Last November, I rebooted our Access and Participation regime, to refocus it on real social mobility. Access shouldn’t be about just getting someone in the door, but on to a course that they complete and that is rigorous enough to give them the skills they need in succeed in life. Under their new access and participation plans, universities will be required to reduce drop-out rates, revolutionise their work with local schools and set new targets to increase the proportion of students on degree apprenticeships and higher technical provision.
This week, working with the universities regulator, the Office for Students (OfS), I have gone further. When consumers buy a product in a shop, they expect two things when it comes to quality: first, that the product has satisfied minimum standards and second, that the product has proper labelling to inform them of the quality of what goes into it. The quality assurance plan published this week follows exactly the same principles.
The OfS will now be setting stringent minimum requirements for completion rates and graduate outcomes for every course. For full-time students studying a first degree, these will be that at least 75 per cent of students complete their studies, and that 60 per cent go on to a highly skilled job or further study. No longer will it be possible for a provider to rip off students with courses that do not improve their lives after graduation. Students will be able to select their course knowing that, like the food in their fridge or the car on their driveway, their course has reached a minimum acceptable standard for quality and outcome.
Alongside this, we are re-vamping a clear labelling system called the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF). This system will signal high quality to students and parents through a simple Gold, Silver or Bronze rating – celebrating all of the successes of our finest institutions.
For the first time ever, those universities with low-quality courses will receive a “Requires Improvement” rating, which clearly marks out those courses are being inadequate and allows students to make properly informed decisions about whether or not to take them. This brings our higher education sector in line with established best practice for schools, hospitals and elsewhere in the public sector.
As Conservatives, we believe that everybody regardless of background, deserves a genuine chance to improve their lives. In our universities, in our colleges and in our great apprenticeship providers we have much to be proud of. By taking the robust measures we have to improve quality and transparency, we can be confident that we will be ensuring that every student gets the higher education they deserve.