By Lois Ryan, English and Philosophy, Second Year
Last month the Office for Students’ annual review outlined plans to punish universities based on student drop-out rates and the number of graduates who go into ‘skilled employment’.
The proposed sanctions include fines and restricted student loan eligibility for universities where more than 20 per cent of students drop out after their first year, more than 25 per cent don’t complete their degree within the previous four years, or more than 40 per cent of graduates do not go into ‘skilled employment’.
The Office for Students regulates higher education in England and aims to ensure that every student ‘Has a fulfilling experience of higher education that enriches their lives and careers.’
Universities Minister Michelle Donelan says the review is aimed at ‘Protecting students from being let down by these institutions’ which represent ‘Poor pockets of quality education’ in the country’s ‘world class’ university sector.
OfS Chief Executive Nicola Dandridge says the measures are aimed at targeting universities with ‘Poor quality courses and outcomes which are letting students down and don’t reflect students’ ambition and effort.’
So, what will the measures actually mean for students?
The OfS acknowledges that the universities targeted are disproportionately made up of students from disadvantaged and underrepresented backgrounds.
The report marks that ‘Regulating minimum requirements for quality and standards safeguards both quality and equality of opportunity, because it ensures that all students (including those with protected characteristics) receive an education that meets these requirements’.
Supposedly then, the new measures - set to eliminate those courses with lower graduate prospects - will help, and even ‘protect’ these students.
These changes reinforce the preeminent social structures and restricts the opportunities for disadvantaged students to actually be change-makers.
But how is penalising universities offering courses studied by students from underrepresented backgrounds safeguarding ‘equality of opportunity’?
Surely ‘equality of opportunity’ would consist of some measures to either improve those courses which underrepresented students are already studying, or to help those students get onto ‘better’ courses?
As opposed to removing the funding for the at-risk courses which over 60,000 students are already enrolled on, and blocking prospective students from getting a student loan to go to university at all?
The new measures are set to reinforce the huge educational inequalities underpinning the system, offering huge cuts and barriers to students on targeted courses and the universities which offer them.
'Thresholds can help drive out low quality courses. But they're a minimum expectation, not an ambitious goal; so, they are focused on the poorest performers. That's where the TEF is important' - our Director of External Relations @conorfryan writes: https://t.co/FVax8Fe7Co pic.twitter.com/vpN7o1TnAZ— The Office for Students (OfS) (@officestudents) February 21, 2022
It’s also important to look at what the OfS means by ‘Positive outcomes’ and ‘High-quality courses’ in order to understand exactly what the country’s higher-education sector will look like after the proposed sanctions.
The sanctions target subjects in the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences, where at this point in the very fluid, ever-changing, endless-economic-growth driven job market, graduates are less likely to find a job in their subject area and more likely to take up jobs in retail or hospitality - or, as the OfS calls them, ‘Unskilled jobs’.
Unsurprisingly, in their review, the OfS proposes even more funding for ‘Subject areas where skills are in high demand’ - like those STEM subjects at big rich universities (like Bristol) which already receive huge amounts of money every year.
The new measures are set to reinforce the huge educational inequalities underpinning the system
Which might not sound so bad for STEM students now, but explicitly basing course funding on our current position within a very fluid job market, whilst refreshingly honest, pushes us further down the dangerous slope of decline.
This is true not just of the Arts (which is over a £100-billion-a-year industry in the UK), but more specifically for disadvantaged students’ access to the arts.
Access to education is not just important for employability as the OfS’ ‘skilled jobs’ focus implies. It is important for providing a means for social change.
Pouring more money into STEM courses in rich universities, taken away from smaller Arts courses at ‘Poor pockets of quality education’ reinforces the preeminent social structures and restricts the opportunities for disadvantaged students to actually be change-makers.
It is not, then, a student-focused ‘value for money’ that the OfS’ plans really hinge on. If it was then they would be looking to increase students’ value for money.
Instead, the plans take away prospective students’ opportunities to study what they want, where they want, and access a bare-minimum tuition loan to do so.
With the UCU strikes steamrolling ahead this week, it feels like a good time to ask ourselves what it is that we want from universities, what it is we’re getting, and look and listen to who is massively underrepresented in our student body.
Because whilst Bristol lounges in its rich, white, private school bubble, our ability to look beyond the horizons from the top of Brandon Hill and reassure ourselves with the knowledge that not every university is quite so privileged and elitist, is under threat. Soon, every university will be similarly constrained. So maybe it’s time to pop the bubble.
Featured Image: Redd | Unsplash
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