Improve student job prospects or lose funding, universities warned

Universities will have to set targets to improve drop-out rates and graduate employment or face having their tuition fees cut. 

Higher education institutions will also be required to boost the number of students they enrol on degree apprenticeships and technical courses, as part of a crackdown by ministers.

The new measures will help to stop universities simply recruiting students on to degree courses that lead to “dropping out, frustration and unemployment”, the universities minister will say on Wednesday.

Michelle Donelan will tell universities to rewrite their “access and participation plans” to include tough targets to increase the proportion of students studying degree apprenticeships and higher technical qualifications.

Vice-chancellors need to submit their plans to the university watchdog, the Office for Students (OfS), for sign-off. If officials at the OfS believe a university’s plan is not sufficiently ambitious, they can reject it and send it back to the university to revisit. 

Universities are banned from charging the highest amount of fees – £9,250 per year – if their plans are not rubber-stamped by the OfS. If a university’s plan is not approved by the watchdog, the maximum they are allowed to charge is £6,165. 

Institutions that fail to deliver on their access and participation plans can also be investigated by the OfS and if they are found to be at fault they could face financial penalties.   

Students need more help to achieve goals

Not every university will have to increase its intake of students on degree apprenticeships if they are fulfilling the other criteria such as those on graduate employment and drop-out rates. 

For example, if a university does not currently offer degree apprenticeships, they will not be expected to suddenly offer them to have their plans signed off. 

The Department for Education (DfE) has said that universities must devote more effort to helping all school pupils achieve their goals, and not just those who have the potential to go on to university.

Universities will be urged to improve outcomes for disadvantaged students in schools and colleges across their region by running summer schools, supporting curriculum development, or offering tutoring.

In a speech to higher education leaders on Wednesday, Ms Donelan, minister for higher and further education, will say: “We need to be making getting on as important as getting in.

“Gone will be the days where universities were recruiting students on to courses that lead to dropping out, frustration and unemployment. 

“A student’s outcome after university needs to be as important to providers as a student’s grades before university.

“We need to send a message to every disadvantaged young person thinking about higher education that they will have the support through school, college and university to get there and achieve a positive outcome for themselves.”

Universities need to link up with schools and colleges

The OfS will ensure that new access and participation plans focus on ensuring that universities admit disadvantaged students on to courses that deliver positive outcomes – and they tackle drop-out rates and support them into high-skilled, high-paid jobs after graduation.

The regulator will push for universities to work with more schools and colleges to raise standards so students get better qualifications, and it will call on institutions to offer more courses that are linked to skills and flexible learning.

A new report by the Institute for Fiscal Studies and the Sutton Trust has found that the more academically selective English universities have the lowest social mobility rates.

Researchers calculate a “mobility rate” for each university by looking at the share of students who were eligible for free school meals and whether those students were among the top 20 per cent of earners at age 30.

Russell Group universities admit very few students who were eligible for free school meals, leading to below-average mobility rates, according to the study. 

The report, which gives each English university a score for social mobility, found that the least academically selective modern institutions score higher than the Russell Group members. 

John Blake, new director for fair access and participation at the OfS, said he wants to see universities work with schools to help disadvantaged pupils throughout their schooling.

He said: “Attainment and access are only the first steps: they need to be matched by participation and success. It is crucial that students are able to study on high-quality courses which meet their needs, and are then supported so they are ready to embark on rewarding lives and careers after graduating.”

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