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Universities ‘take advantage’ of students, says Donelan

Image: Gareth Milner [CC BY 2.0], via Flickr

Universities minister calls for ‘new era of access and participation’ as she criticises ‘dumbing down’

Universities have been taking advantage of students—particularly first-generation university attendees—by expanding “popular-sounding courses with no real demand from the labour market”, the universities minister has said.

Michelle Donelan said too many students were studying on university courses that “do nothing to improve their life chances” or help with their careers, and universities have “dumbed down” in order to expand their student intake.

Speaking on 1 July at a conference on social mobility, Donelan said it was time to “think again” about “the wider point of social mobility and higher education in general”, claiming that since 2004, there had been “too much focus on getting students through the door” and not enough focus on how many drop out, or how many go on to graduate jobs.

“Too many have been misled by the expansion of popular-sounding courses with no real demand from the labour market,” Donelan continued. “Quite frankly, our young people have been taken advantage of—particularly those without a family history of going to university.

“Instead, some have been left with the debt of an investment that didn’t pay off in any sense. And too many universities have felt pressured to dumb down—either when admitting students, or in the standards of their courses.”

This, she added, had been demonstrated by grade inflation—the increasing number of students graduating with a first or a 2:1—which she said “has to stop”.

“We need to end the system of arbitrary targets that are not focused on the individual student’s needs and goals. And, let’s be clear, we help disadvantaged students by driving up standards, not by levelling down,” she said.

Donelan’s speech follows comments made by prime minister Boris Johnson during his major speech in Dudley yesterday, in which he claimed that while England had “umpteen fantastic, globally outstanding universities…too many degree courses are not delivering value”. 

In today’s address, Donelan added that “true social mobility is about getting people to choose the path that will lead to their desired destination and enabling them to complete that path”, and is “not about getting more people into university”.

“For decades we have been recruiting too many young people on to courses that do nothing to improve their life chances or help with their career goals,” she said.

“True social mobility is when we put students and their needs and career ambitions first, be that in higher education, further education or apprenticeships. Whatever path taken, I want it to lead to skilled, meaningful jobs that fulfil their ambitions and improve their life earnings, whether that’s as a teacher, an electrician, a lawyer, a plumber, a nurse or in business.”

The universities minister added that “higher education should be open to all”, but clarified that this meant “all those who are qualified by ability and attainment”.

“Universities need to do much, much more to ensure that all students—particularly those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds—are recruited onto courses that will deliver good outcomes, and that they have the confidence to apply and the information they need to make informed choices,” she added.

Donelan singled out university involvement in specialist maths schools as one area where institutions had been successful in improving outcomes. The King’s Maths School achieved the best maths A level results in the country, she said, adding that the universities of Cambridge, Durham, Lancaster, Liverpool and Surrey all have schools in development.

“Whether it’s science, languages, engineering or the humanities, universities should be doing all they can to raise attainment for the less fortunate and work with schools,” Donelan continued.

“That can be sponsoring schools, supporting a robust curriculum, or running summer camps; universities have the potential here to make a tremendous difference in opening up opportunities.

“So, I want your access budgets not to be spent on marketing but on raising standards, providing the role models, the information, encouraging aspiration and highlighting the high-quality opportunities available.”

She concluded her address by calling for a “new era on access and participation—one based on raising standards, not on dumbing down; on putting prospective students and their ambitions and needs first; on results and impact, not on box-ticking and marketing; and on delivering graduates into jobs that really will transform their lives.”

The universities minister was speaking at a conference organised by the National Education Opportunities Network, which advocates widening access to higher education. NEON has today launched a new website called Uni4Me, which offers free access to virtual courses in a range of subjects led by academics, along with online GCSE and A level tuition and information sessions about going to university.

Chair of NEON, Les Ebdon—a former director of Fair Access to Higher Education—said: “Going to university transformed my life, from a kid off a corporation estate to a knight of the realm. In recent years, many universities and charities have provided great programmes to overcome disadvantage, but the Covid-19 lockdown threatens these efforts.”

He said the new Uni4Me site was “a great opportunity to showcase the many online programmes now available that will be so important to providing fairer opportunities for all”.