Review low-value degrees by start of 2023, UUK recommends

Universities UK suggests universities chose three “core metrics” to review the value of degrees to students and graduates by the start of next year

Universities should use several “core measures” to weed out low-value degrees, the group representing 140 vice-chancellors has said.

Formulating a list of eight “core metrics”, Universities UK recommends its members in England integrate at least one indicator from each of three thematic areas into degree reviews.

The list of core metrics includes the numbers that progress to high-skilled employment, continuation rates and student satisfaction scores and covers student and graduate views, student outcomes and graduate prospects.

Universities should use the metrics to identify degrees that could be subject to concern and lead them to conduct a thorough investigation, the report says.

The announcement from Universities UK on low-value degrees comes as the higher education sector in England looks to preempt looming government and regulator announcements on failing courses.

It would see universities using three or more metrics in the appraisal of each degree. The expectation, however, would permit universities to tailor their review to their context while ensuring, on some quantitative measure, their degrees do not fall short of student and graduate expectations.

The report also sets out three thematic ‘contextual’ areas for evaluation, recommending universities consult with students, staff and local stakeholders to pick several metrics that reflect the contribution of degrees to society, economic growth and social mobility.

Although universities monitor courses “regularly”, UUK said its statement aimed to bring clarity to a process that is often “challenging and can be subjective”.

Decisions based only on narrow measures, such as graduate outcomes, will make it more difficult for universities to support levelling up
– Prof Julia Buckingham

UUK recommends universities undertake annual degree reviews, publishing “high-level” summaries signed by governing councils online, which outline what action is to be taken. The first of these reviews should be made public by all universities “by early 2023”, UUK said. Transparency is a foundational requirement of this new UUK statement.

“In recognition of the wider value of higher education and how this contributes to national priorities – including levelling up and improving life chances across the UK, provision of skills, supporting economic growth nationally and locally and contributing to social responsibility – the framework provides guidance on how institutions can consider the full impact of courses,” said UUK.

Professor Julia Buckingham, chair of the Institute of Cancer Research and, as of January 2022, the former vice-chancellor of Brunel University London, led the group that investigated the UUK approach to low-value degrees.

In a foreword to the report, Prof Buckingham referenced the pending announcement on performance metrics from the Office for Students: “There’s a real risk that regulation and funding decisions based only on narrow measures, such as graduate outcomes, will make it more difficult for universities to support levelling up, improve social mobility and deliver choice for students.”

The Office for Students confirmed on 17 January that it preparing to publish its view on baseline student outcomes this week.

Said Prof Buckingham: “[The new approach] will support universities’ internal processes, ensuring they can identify courses where value or quality might be an issue and act on it, build public and government confidence in the quality and value of our provision, and demonstrate the sector’s commitment to consistency and transparency in this area.”

The core metrics proposed by Universities UK:

Student and graduate views

  1. Student satisfaction: The percentage of students who were satisfied with the teaching, assessment and feedback, and academic support on their course.
  2. Meeting student expectations: Comparison of outcomes compared to expectations gathered from students entering institutions, to reflect diversity of student views.

Student outcomes

  1. Continuation: The percentage of students who were enrolled at the start of the academic year and progressed to the following year, obtained a qualification, or transferred to another institution.
  2. Completion: The percentage of students who start on a course and are projected to leave with a qualification.
  3. Value added – learning gain: Approaches that compare degree grades with entry grades, ie relative learning gain, or ‘value added’.

Graduate prospects

  1. Highly skilled employment: The percentage of graduates in highly skilled employment or further study after qualifying.
  2. Graduate unemployment: The percentage of graduates who experienced unemployment.
  3. Graduate views on career progress: The percentage of graduates that feel their current work is meaningful, that their current work fits with their future plans or that they are using what they learnt during their studies.

The contextual metrics proposed by Universities UK:

(1) Supporting economic growth

  1. Employment in high-growth sector: The proportion of graduates employed within high growth sectors, particularly in areas of the country with low growth.
  2. Employment in innovative sectors: The proportion of graduates working in high innovation industries and businesses.
  3. High skilled employment in low growth areas: The proportion of graduates who work in ‘professional’ jobs in low growth regions/areas.
  4. Employment or further study in local areas: The proportion of graduates who work or remain for further study in the local area.
  5. Entrepreneurship: The proportion of graduates who start or own their own business which survives for at least three years.

(2) Social responsibility

  1. Value added – social mobility: Use of the social mobility index to look at value-added contribution of institutions and courses.
  2. Key attainment gaps: The gap in awards between target groups of students.
  3. Progression into public health and social care professions: The proportion of students progressing into medicine, nursing, midwifery, and allied health and social care professions.
  4. Progression into teaching professions: The proportion of students progressing into teaching.

(3) University mission and strategy

  1. Mission-oriented value: Measures that show how courses align with the university’s mission and strategy.
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