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Low-value degrees: UUK announces charter to ‘address concerns’

Vice-chancellors’ advisory group will draw up plans for identifying and improving low-value or low-quality degrees

Universities UK (UUK) has convened an advisory group to draw up guidance on identifying and improving ‘potentially low-value or low-quality courses’.

Eleven vice-chancellors of English universities will together develop a charter to ensure ‘a consistent and transparent approach’ is taken when addressing the small number of courses perceived to be not delivering enough for students and other stakeholders.

“The overwhelming majority of courses are high quality and offer good value for students, but we want to address concerns that some could deliver more for students, taxpayers, and employers,” said Professor Julia Buckingham, president of Universities UK and chair of the advisory group, announcing the measures today [16 November].

The public needs full confidence in the value and quality of a UK university degree – Julia Buckingham, UUK

“The development of this charter will help universities take consistent and more transparent approaches in tackling low quality or low value courses.

“The public needs full confidence in the value and quality of a UK university degree and the charter will demonstrate universities’ commitment to constant improvement.”

UUK says the advisory group will begin by delivering a “Statement of Intent, agreed by universities” setting out “the sector’s commitment to consistency and transparency in processes to tackle low value courses”.

It will share examples of existing best practice in identifying such courses – including the use of metrics, and taking rapid action to address issues.

UUK will then publish guidance for universities to follow.

Options for external, independent review will be considered to make universities’ processes stronger.

Low-value degrees: the ongoing debate

Higher education providers already have robust processes in place to monitor and review their courses and ensure quality and standards. Debate has raged for years on how, exactly, to assess that quality, and the majority of sector voices do not believe quality should be tied to graduate employment outcomes or graduate incomes.

This summer, low-value degrees were the focus of an attack by the government. In June, delivering a speech on his plans to invest in further education, Boris Johnson told an audience in the West Midlands: “We have umpteen fantastic, globally outstanding universities and yet too many degree courses are not now delivering value.” The next day, universities minister Michelle Donelan told the NEON conference: “Our young people have been taken advantage of… Some have been left with the debt of an investment that didn’t pay off in any sense…. Too many universities have felt pressured to dumb down – either when admitting students, or in the standards of their courses.”

Ms Donelan’s comments in July were met with shock and disappointment by the university sector, with Dr Jo Grady, the general secretary of the University and College Union, saying “The government’s obsession with a graduate’s earnings as the only measure of success suggests ignorance about the real value of education. It is particularly tone-deaf at a time when millions of workers educated and trained by universities are providing important public services in the midst of a severe economic crisis.

“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.”

Vanessa Wilson, chief executive of University Alliance, said the attack on low-value courses was “founded on highly limited data and a narrow and over-simplistic interpretation of ‘value’, and it does not reflect students’ motivations for pursuing higher education.”

The following vice-chancellors make up the UUK advisory group:

  • Professor Julia Buckingham CBE (chair of advisory group), Brunel University London
  • Professor Graham Baldwin, University of Central Lancashire
  • Professor Dame Janet Beer DBE, University of Liverpool
  • Professor Frances Corner OBE, Goldsmiths University of London
  • Professor Susan Lea, University of Hull
  • Professor Edward Peck, Nottingham Trent University
  • Professor Malcolm Press, Manchester Metropolitan University
  • Professor Lisa Roberts,  University of Exeter
  • Professor Andy Schofield, Lancaster University
  • Professor Mark Smith CBE, University of Southampton
  • Professor Wendy Thomson CBE, University of London

You might also like: Students ‘taken advantage of’ by low-value degrees – Donelan

Graduate incomes no measure of success, argues UUK president

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