Students from disadvantaged backgrounds have been “taken advantage of” by universities in England, Michelle Donelan said today, because they had been “misled” by low-value courses.
The universities minister told the NEON summit that she would lead a new approach to social mobility; one which did not focus on “getting more people into university” and would instead promote further education (FE) and apprenticeships.
Ms Donelan said university courses were failing to deliver social mobility: “For decades we have been recruiting too many young people on to courses that do nothing to improve their life chances or help with their career goals”.
She accused universities of “levelling down” instead of raising standards.
“Quite frankly, our young people have been taken advantage of – particularly those without a family history of going to university. Instead, some have been left with the debt of an investment that didn’t pay off in any sense,” she said. “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.”
Degrees that do not lead to a “skilled, meaningful” career, “fulfil [students’] ambitions and “improve their life earnings” were, she said, low-value courses that should be stopped. “We help disadvantaged students by driving up standards, not by levelling down,” Ms Donelan added.
The higher education sector has, for the second time this week, attracted ministerial opprobrium. In a major speech delivered at the Dudley College of Technology, the prime minister questioned the value of many university degree courses as he promised to boost the number of apprenticeships and support FE colleges.
The Chippenham MP – who was appointed to the higher education brief in February – excoriated universities for using access funds for “box-ticking and marketing” and suggested they instead use the money to raise standards.
The minister suggested universities could do this be sponsoring schools, running summer camps and supporting curriculum development. Ms Donelan said the King’s Maths School was an example of good practice because it had achieved the best A-level Maths results in the country last year, even bettering all schools in the independent sector.
The universities of Exeter, Cambridge, Durham, Lancaster, and Surrey all have similar schools in development, and the University of Liverpool Maths School will open this September.
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
– Jo Grady, UCU
During the address, Ms Donelan announced the launch of Uni4me, a new, online hub that unites over 50 HE providers to offer support including online tuition in core GCSE and A-level subjects.
She said new approaches like Uni4Me were “vital” if the country was to tackle the gaps in achievement and higher education progress: “Higher education should be open to all…who are qualified by ability and attainment. And universities do need to do much, much more to ensure that all students – and particularly those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds – are recruited on to courses that will deliver good outcomes and that they have the confidence to apply and the information they need to make informed choices.”
Government ‘obsession’ with graduate earnings
The minister’s comments today provoked a stinging retort from Dr Jo Grady, the general secretary of the University and College Union.
“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.
“Instead of making the case for education, the minister appears to be trying to turn some students off university by saying it is expensive and substandard. Universities using contextual data to increase opportunity for students from the poorest backgrounds should be applauded. 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.”
Vanessa Wilson, chief executive of University Alliance, which represents professional and technical universities, suggested the minister was making unsubstantiated claims.
“We’re thoroughly disappointed in the universities minister’s comments today, suggesting fewer people should be going to university based on unsubstantiated claims over the value of degree courses. This attack on ‘low value’ higher education is 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,” she said.
“True social mobility is achieved when a wide range of high-quality options and routes are available and equally valued, and it is wrong to suggest that higher education institutions have been wilfully misleading students when there is little evidence to support that claim.”