OfS publishes plans to punish English universities for poor value for money

·3 min read
<span>Photograph: Chris Ison/PA</span>
Photograph: Chris Ison/PA

Tens of thousands of students are enrolled at institutions that could fail to meet new minimum standards

Tens of thousands of students in England are studying for degrees at institutions that could soon be punished for low quality and poor value for money, under plans drawn up by the higher education regulator.

The Office for Students (OfS) has published a consultation detailing its minimum acceptable outcomes for students, which sets thresholds for drop-out rates, course completion and graduate employment that universities and colleges will have to pass to avoid further investigation.

The consultation document from the OfS says that more than 60,000 students on full-time undergraduate courses are currently or recently enrolled at institutions in England that could fail to meet its minimum standards, as have more than 150,000 part-time undergraduates.

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The new regulations would mean that universities, colleges and other providers are likely to be sanctioned if fewer than 80% of students studying full-time for their first degree continue past their first year, or if fewer than 75% complete their degree, over the previous four years.

Institutions could also be investigated and penalised by the OfS if fewer than 60% of their graduates go on to work in what it classifies as skilled employment.

Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of the OfS, said the proposals were “a landmark moment” in efforts to tackle poor quality provision in English higher education.

“Many universities and colleges in England run high quality courses that deliver positive outcomes for students. The thresholds that we have proposed will not affect them. They are instead designed to target those poor quality courses and outcomes which are letting students down and don’t reflect students’ ambition and effort,” Dandridge said.

The new regulations would also create a series of thresholds for part-time and some postgraduate students.

The proposed thresholds are unlikely to trouble most mainstream universities in England, although some subjects such as agriculture could attract the OfS’s attention. Private or alternative providers outside the traditional university sector are most at risk of sanction, with some having high drop-out rates and low numbers of students completing their degrees.

Sanctions available to the OfS include fines and restrictions on student loan eligibility for institutions that fall below any of the thresholds, including by individual subjects. The OfS said it would look closely at each case, including the use of disaggregated data by sex, ethnicity, previous eligibility for free school meals and other indicators that could influence an institution’s performance.

The OfS is also proposing to resuscitate the teaching excellence framework (Tef) awards, which would be compulsory for universities and colleges that meet the thresholds.

Ratings of gold, silver or bronze would be awarded by an expert panel appointed by the OfS, using “evidence submitted by universities and colleges, numerical indicators and submissions from students”. But taking a leaf out of the school inspectorate Ofsted, the Tef panel could also award a new “requires improvement” category for universities and colleges “where the panel is unable to identify excellence”.

Michelle Donelan, the universities minister for England, said: “Our university system is acclaimed as world class, but there are too many pockets of poor quality.

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“Through this tough regulatory action, we are protecting students from being let down by these institutions, while also ensuring those delivering outstanding teaching are properly recognised.”

Universities UK, representing vice-chancellors and principals, said: “Universities should also consider how courses contribute to public services such as the NHS, to business creation and skills needs in local areas, and their contribution to cultural activity and the environment.

“We look forward to continuing to work closely with the OfS as we consider this consultation and the proposals.”