The Office for Students’ (OfS) decision to launch a consultation on proposals to raise the bar on quality and standards in higher education is good news. According to the OfS, in 2018-19 around 3% of students were on courses that did not meet its standards across all subjects, cohorts and year groups. This clearly must be addressed.
While we welcome the proposed definitions of quality and standards, further careful consideration of these definitions is needed. For example, is progression to a managerial or professional level job the fairest way to measure the quality of a course? Student progression to such roles is affected by so many factors and we fear that such a metric may unintentionally reduce access to certain courses.
Assessing the success of a course by progression to managerial and professional jobs will limit access to higher education, unless the definition of a “professional job” is made clearer. For example, someone graduating from a prestigious performing arts course would not take the same route into employment as an economics graduate, who has a clear route to a graduate scheme, but may be no less successful in their chosen field. That individual’s employment could be part-time, precarious, or reliant on voluntary work until more permanent employment is gained. At a time when we should be broadening the reach of higher education by making it accessible to everyone, this proposal could restrict it.
We are also concerned by the OfS’ assumption that the average student has a defined path of three to four years study. We know that this is increasingly not the case as students look to tailor their studies around their lives, rather than the other way around. These assumptions would be particularly damaging to the carer who is working the degree around their other responsibilities or the parent retraining while raising a family. Such a definition would be at odds with recent government moves to encourage more of us to become lifelong learners, as set out in the Skills of Jobs White Paper.
The OfS’ ambition to tackle low-quality courses is the right one, but if they are to improve quality and standards, they must keep in mind that not everyone approaches higher education in the same way. While well-meaning, ill-thought through changes have the potential to close the door on an opportunity to truly make education accessible to all.
By Gary Gates, SVP Higher Education