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Evaluation of short courses stymied by low student numbers

Image: Daniel Parks [CC BY-NC 2.0], via Flickr

Some institutions in OfS-funded English trial bulked out enrolment with staff members

Student participation levels in new short courses at English higher education institutions fell “far below” what had been hoped for, making analysis of their performance a challenge, according to an independent evaluation of a multimillion-pound Office for Students trial.

The OfS launched the Higher Education Short Course trial in 2021, through which providers could bid for funding to develop short courses of 30 or 40 credits. Some 22 providers received a total of £2 million to develop new short courses.

More than 100 new courses were proposed in total, with projections that more than 2,000 students would participate in 2022-23. However, the evaluation found that just 17 courses at 10 providers recruited students between the autumn of 2022 and summer of 2023, with a total of just 125 enrolments.

More than half the courses that did launch had intakes of five or fewer students, while two providers waived fees and opened their courses to staff of partner employers to trial delivery, the report says. Two other institutions enrolled members of staff to “make intakes viable”.

‘Far below aspirations’

The report comes as universities prepare for the launch of the Lifelong Learning Entitlement next year, which will give adults up to aged 60 access to tuition fee loans for four years’ higher study. This requires universities and other providers to offer individual modules as standalone courses that can be stacked to create full, cross-institutional qualifications—but some have questioned whether there is significant demand to borrow money for such courses.

The evaluation, published on 10 January, found that only 240 applications for the short courses were reported, which included some to courses that ultimately did not launch due to “insufficient cohort size”.

“This extent of participation was far below the aspirations of project teams in their proposals,” the report says. “This has reduced the amount of evidence available for assessment during the evaluation period and the balance of this report reflects this.”

While almost all the providers expect to continue to offer their courses, two institutions have withdrawn offered courses because they doubt their financial sustainability.

“However, overall, this suggests ongoing interest from many providers in the continued development and offer of short-course provision,” the report concludes.

Hard to compare

Due to the low course numbers and rates of participation, the evaluation found “very little opportunity to compare approaches to see what worked particularly well and/or better”.

“This was exacerbated by the wide range of course topics, levels and durations encompassed by the provision that was launched,” it says. “We therefore found no substantive evidence to identify differences in effectiveness of the way projects went about course development and offer.”

In a joint blog, Alastair Wilson, head of student pathways and progression at the OfS, and Ruby Gatehouse, the regulator’s access and participation manager, said that while it was “disappointing that enrolments were lower than expected, it is important to emphasise the novel nature of this work and that universities and colleges worked swiftly to develop innovative new courses”.

“That is to be commended, and the OfS is grateful to all of those universities and colleges that worked to develop courses,” they wrote. “Their commitment to this way of working will help the whole sector to consider how and whether short courses can play a part in their offer to prospective students.”