The English regulator’s plan to judge institutions using an absolute baseline on student outcomes, including proportions going into “managerial and professional” jobs, could deter universities from recruiting disadvantaged students, vice-chancellors have warned.
The Office for Students’ plan to change the way it assesses standards – which it says will tackle “low quality” provision, a frequent target for the government – could also hand ministers the power to decide which courses universities offer, some fear.
Universities UK has “significant concerns about the proposals”, it says in a consultation response.
“A potential unintended consequence is that providers are deterred from recruiting students who might be considered more at risk of not continuing, completing, or progressing to the stated level of employment,” UUK adds.
London Higher, which represents universities in the capital, says in its response that the OfS plan “risks reversing progress made in increasing access and participation for underrepresented student groups”.
“We…implore you to reconsider this proposal,” it tells the OfS.
Graham Galbraith, vice-chancellor of the University of Portsmouth, writing in a blog published by the Higher Education Policy Institute, calls the OfS plan a “very significant change” that puts “short-term labour market need at the heart of our higher education system”.
The OfS sets out the plan in a consultation on new minimum baseline requirements for quality and standards, which runs until 25 January.
Subject to further consultation, the new rules could be made part of OfS registration conditions, meaning that students at institutions that fall short could ultimately be blocked from accessing student loans.
The OfS – which says institutions failing to meet baselines can expect “significant regulatory attention”, including its “enforcement powers” – sets out five criteria on quality and standards. But only one, outcomes, will be judged on a numerical baseline rather than general principles.
Here, the OfS plans to determine “acceptable performance for indicators relating to continuation, completion and progression to managerial and professional employment or higher level study”, with data compiled on subject groups within institutions.
Progression data will come from the Graduate Outcomes survey, which looks at the jobs individuals are in just 15 months after graduation.
But the OfS proposes that there should be no benchmarking of the numerical baselines to take account of students’ social backgrounds, saying it does not “bake” student disadvantage “into the regulatory system by setting lower minimum requirements for providers that typically recruit these types of students”. It does say that it “will take a provider’s context into account in reaching our judgement to ensure we have properly interpreted its absolute performance”.
UUK says that the proposed approach “neglects the role of student agency, behaviour and preferences, the influence of their socioeconomic and demographic characteristics on life chances, and the wider social and economic context (national and local) in which students are living and graduating”.
Professor Galbraith told Times Higher Education: “Any measures of quality that are not benchmarked would disproportionately affect universities that recruit those disadvantaged students who arrive at university with less prior social capital.”
Some fear that the outcomes measure could be used as a “backdoor student number control”, pressuring universities to stop recruiting on courses close to the baseline.
Professor Galbraith said: “We shouldn’t speculate how the OfS or the government might, in the future, use the powers it seeks, but it is clear the powers the OfS seeks would give it and government far greater control over what courses universities can offer and hence the range of choice available to students.”
The OfS’ approach seems influenced by finding itself unable to refuse registration to the for-profit Bloomsbury Institute over low continuation and progression rates, after the institution’s legal challenge argued that the regulator had not taken account of its student demographic.
While acknowledging that concern, critics warned that the OfS plans would give its future leaders far-reaching power. Some fear that its future as an independent regulator is in doubt after the government appointed as its next chair Lord Wharton of Yarm, a former Conservative MP who managed Boris Johnson’s party leadership campaign.
The OfS said that it was not able to comment on a live consultation.