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Sunak plans to cap student numbers on ‘rip-off’ degrees

Emma Lunn
Written By:
Emma Lunn

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak says he wants to reduce the number of students taking university courses that have high drop-out rates and poor employment prospects.

But critics say that the move would be unlikely to affect the bulk of courses offered by Oxford, Cambridge and other Russell Group universities, but is likely to affect creative degrees and disproportionally impact students from low-income households.

Sunak was educated privately at Winchester College before studying philosophy, politics and economics at Oxford University. He said that courses with high drop-out rates, or that don’t lead to good jobs, will have their numbers capped.

However, when education minister Robert Halfon was quizzed by Susannah Reid on Good Morning Britain, he couldn’t name a single degree, cite a salary threshold or define a ‘good job’ which would set the criteria for the clampdown.

Under the plans, the Office for Students (OfS) will be asked to limit the number of students universities can recruit onto courses that are “failing to deliver good outcomes”.

Sunak said that a minority of the university courses on offer in the UK leave students saddled with “debt, low earnings and faced with poor job prospects”. He said the Government wants to make the system fairer for these students, but also for taxpayers who foot the bill for unrecovered tuition fees if graduate earnings are low.

Figures from the OfS showed that nearly three in 10 graduates do not progress into highly skilled jobs or further study 15 months after graduating.

Foundation year fees

The Government has also announced it would reduce the maximum fee that universities can charge for classroom-based foundation year courses to £5,760 – down from £9,250 currently.

These are an additional year of study designed to help prepare students for degrees with specific entry requirements or knowledge, such as in medicine and veterinary sciences. However, research shows that too many people are encouraged to take a foundation year in some subjects like business where it is “not necessary”.

Sunak said: “Too many young people are being sold a false dream and end up doing a poor-quality course at the taxpayers’ expense that doesn’t offer the prospect of a decent job at the end of it.

“That is why we are taking action to crack down on rip-off university courses, while boosting skills training and apprenticeships provision.

“This will help more young people to choose the path that is right to help them reach their potential and grow our economy.”

An ‘attack on aspirations’ – and the arts

The Government’s plans have been heavily criticised by people who work in the arts. Charity Arts Emergency tweeted: “Hands up who took a ‘low value degree’ & wouldn’t be where you are without it. Hands up who thinks EVERY young person should have the opportunity to do the same. Hands up who thinks higher education shouldn’t be reduced to ‘produces high earners’.”

Comedian Shappi Khorsandi tweeted: “Drama Theatre & Television’ here. University should be a place to indulge in passions, make friends with people you’d never ordinarily have met. I learned to the dance routine to Boom Shake The Room. Creatives tend not to be driven by money. Give them space to thrive @Rishi Sunak.”

Bridget Phillipson, shadow education secretary, said: “This is simply an attack on the aspirations of young people and their families by a government that wants to reinforce the class ceiling, not smash it.

“The Conservatives’ appalling record on apprenticeships means it can’t be trusted to deliver the overhaul that our young people need, and (the) new role for the Office for Students will be to put up fresh barriers to opportunity in areas with fewer graduate jobs.

“Labour will enable our young people to seize the opportunities of the future through our reforms of the skills system and higher education funding – your background will be no barrier to getting on under a Labour Government.”