Low-value courses: ‘I’m not talking about earnings’, says Michelle Donelan

Michelle Donelan also said she would like university vice-chancellor pay to be dependent on expanding technical qualification provision

The value of a university degree is not dependent on the average earnings of its graduates, the universities minister Michelle Donelan has said in a speech that began to set out the government’s approach to low-value courses and technical qualifications.

At a Conservative party conference fringe event on Sunday – Back in Business: what can modern universities do to support Britain’s recovery? – the universities minister praised the work of modern universities, particularly the expansion of technical and degree apprenticeship courses in those institutions, but stressed that “there are still pockets of low-quality provision” in the sector.

Ms Donelan also used her speech to urge modern universities to expand the number and range of higher technical qualifications (HTQs) and degree apprenticeships – even going so far as to say she would like to see university vice-chancellor pay dependent on success in this area.

During her speech at the Conservative Home event, which was attended by the chair of MillionPlus Prof Rama Thirunamachandran and the director of the Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi) Nick Hillman, Ms Donelan she wanted to clamp down on low-value courses “that quite frankly don’t deliver on the expectations and dreams that they were sold to young people on”.

“I’m not talking about earnings,” she continued, noting that many valuable key workers like nurses do not earn above-average wages after graduation. On the topic of low-value courses more generally, she continued: “If fewer than half of those that enrol on a course never progress onto a graduate job either because the support to complete the course wasn’t given to them, or because it didn’t provide the skills employers value, can we truly look those graduates in the eye and tell them they definitely got a good deal?”

If fewer than half of those that enrol on a course never progress onto a graduate job either because the support to complete the course wasn’t given to them, or because it didn’t provide the skills employers value, can we truly look those graduates in the eye and tell them they definitely got a good deal?
– Michelle Donelan, universities minister

She said a small “but growing minority” of students fall into this category, which is why the Conservative party made “a manifesto commitment to tackle quality in degrees and we will not flinch from that”. Despite her stated personal resolution to grapple with low-value courses, Ms Donelan said she would prefer it if “vice-chancellors acted themselves by shaping their offering”.

In shaping their offerings, the minister continued, the government would urge modern universities “to make a real commitment to accelerate progress” in the number of one- and two-year technical qualifications available to those from non-traditional university backgrounds and to cut some existing degree offerings down to short one-year qualifications.

“This would allow students to enter the workplace faster, rack up less debt and graduate with the skills employers value. While others will come from attracting new students; people who would never have considered doing a degree but will sign up for a one-year course that’s employment-focused. In areas of the country where the proportion of people is still less than 20% of people go to university, this could be transformative,” she added.

The government would like those post-’92 universities “to commit to offering 20% to 30% or even 50% of their provision” to these qualifications, “to write it into their strategies, to embed it into their KPIs,” and “to make achieving it one of the metrics on which their vice-chancellors’ salaries are actually based”, she said.

Noting that her party had won seats in parts of the country like Stoke-on-Trent, Wolverhampton and Bolton, Ms Donelan said modern universities in former industrial towns like those were key to the government’s offering in those newly-won constituencies.


Read more: Government must prioritise place-based funding, says MillionPlus chair

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