From education to employment

London Higher Response to Consultation on HE Reform: Part 1

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This document provides London Higher’s response to the Department for Education’s consultation on
HE Reform
, published on the 24 February, for response before 06 May 2022.

This consultation response was created after extensive discussion with the London Higher membership and seeks to represent the diversity of London HE.

Student Number Controls

Question 1: What are your views of SNCs as an intervention to prioritise provision with the best outcomes and to restrict the supply of provision which offers poorer outcomes? Please explain your answer and give evidence where possible. If you consider there are alternative interventions which could achieve the same objective more effectively or efficiently, please detail these below.

London Higher does not believe that SNCs would achieve the aims set out in the consultation to be an effective intervention in maintaining and strengthening the international standing of the UK’s higher education system, nor will SNCs improve life outcomes and social mobility for students. We believe that SNCs would undermine the higher education system in six key ways:

First, the introduction of SNCs based upon the OfS’ proposals for minimum thresholds for student outcomes doubles down on the significant limitations inherent in these proposals that London Higher has highlighted in the consultation on Student Outcomes (full response here). Our primary concern regarding the use of Student Outcomes is that it uses narrow economic metrics to define high-quality provision in higher education, rather than a measure of ‘distance travelled’, or a more holistic measure of the social and societal benefits conferred by higher education. This penalises those institutions who undertake the ‘heavy lifting’ of improving social mobility (many of which are found in London) and undermines the government’s own ‘levelling up’ agenda.

In order to reduce risk within the proposed regulatory framework and therefore being subject to SNCs, providers are incentivised to reduce recruitment from those groups who incur the greatest risk. This directly contradicts the Access and Participation agenda, preventing disadvantaged students from making particular course choices, while still allowing affluent students who study economically ‘unproductive’ courses at more highly selective universities, which are less likely to be restricted by SNCs, to do so. This risks undermining the government’s commitment to ensure that those from underrepresented groups are able to access, participate and succeed in higher education. London Higher wholeheartedly supports work focused on improving student outcomes, however, we do not believe that limiting access to higher education is the way to achieve this.

Second, and linked to the impact on disadvantaged students, SNCs do not reflect the importance of local provision, in particular for mature and part-time students and some of the most disadvantaged learners. Closing or limiting local provision will negatively impact students even if a ‘higher quality’ course is available further away because these students are not going to be in a position to commit to enrol at non- local providers. Students who choose local provision over more distant courses that may have higher employability outcomes could be making the best choice for their needs in line with their availability and responsibilities.

Third, SNCs limit the supply of higher education, whilst quality vocational and technical pathways remain an aspiration rather than a reality. Demand for higher education has continued to grow in recent years, despite a demographic dip in 18 year olds and this has primarily been driven by an increase in students from previously underrepresented groups progressing to higher education. Research from the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) also shows that demand for higher education is set to grow further yet, with London and the South-East projected to see the greatest increase in places required by 2035, primarily because they take the greatest numbers of students from the London region where more disadvantaged and underrepresented students are going to university than ever before.

Limiting progression to higher education before demonstrable progress has been made in increasing the quality of vocational and technical qualifications risks closing pathways for students without providing a viable quality alternative. Previous attempts by the government to sophisticatedly foresee the precise numbers of graduates in each subject the economy will need in the future have been unsuccessful to date. Intervening within this marketplace where DfE does not agree with the decisions made by providers and students appears to undermine the very nature of this marketplace, and moves towards a planned higher education economy.

Fourth, SNCs risk being – or being seen to be – politicised, reflecting narrow and changing government agendas. For example, SNCs based on subjects risk the penalisation of creative subjects which are not currently seen as a priority for this government, yet are a significant contributor to London’s economy. According to analysis from the Greater London Authority (GLA), prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, London’s creative economy was worth £58bn a year and accounted for one in six jobs in the capital. Cutting off the supply of creative graduates for a key sector of London’s economy, therefore, risks damaging a core part of the capital’s and nation’s fastest growing industries. (A recent London Higher report describes the value of London’s creative higher education provision to the nation in more detail).

Fifth, the implementation of SNCs increases the regulatory burden surrounding higher education at a time when there is professed aim to reduce this burden for providers. Many of the suggested approaches appear to suggest regularly changing SNCs (and indeed, this would be necessary to avoid stagnation in the sector), the creation and implementation of which would require significant capacity from both individual providers and the DfE. London Higher would welcome a system which reduces, rather than increases regulatory burden, and reflects the administrative capacity of both the regulatory body and government.

Moreover, if SNCs are introduced per subject, this will disproportionately impact the administrative burden on small subject areas. It will impact both their ability to continue existing and their ability to grow. There are many hundreds of subjects only available at undergraduate level at only one course in the country, from minority languages to culinary arts and specialist law pathways – many of which are offered by London-based providers. Working out how to set SNCs in some of these courses will present an enormous administrative burden and could lead to the forced closure of certain courses, which would lessen the diversity and vibrancy of the UK higher education landscape. Some courses which currently have low student numbers are expected to grow soon for reasons related to national strategic planning. One example of this is Chinese language and Chinese Studies, currently available at a relatively low number of British providers and concentrated at the highest tariff institutions. SNCs could limit the growth of this small but strategically important subject area.

Finally, we remain concerned at the number of ongoing consultations from both the OfS (Student Outcomes, TEF and Constructing Indicators) and the DfE (HE Reform and LLE) where wide-ranging proposals have been presented, but the interaction between each is not made clear. For example, there is no clarity around how students moving between courses as outlined in government plans for the LLE, would interact with SNCs. London Higher would welcome further consideration over the timeline and interaction between each of the proposals.

Question 2: What are your views on how SNCs should be designed and set, including whether assessments of how many students providers can recruit should be made at: Sector level? Provider level? Subject level? Level of course? Mode of course? Please explain your answer and give evidence where possible.

London Higher does not believe that SNCs can be designed or set without significant negative impact upon students, providers and the entire sector. Therefore, we do not believe that it is productive to engage with this discussion and instead ask the government not to implement SNCs in any form at all.

Question 3: The Government is considering which outcomes should be used if SNCs are introduced and has identified the three broad categories as quantifiable, societal, and/or strategically important. What are your views of the merits of these various approaches to consider outcomes and/or do you have any other suggestions? Please explain your answer and give evidence where possible.

London Higher does not believe that the three broad categories of quantifiable, societal and/ or strategically important would be able to adequately reflect the diversity and complexity of higher education. This would also potentially incur significant additional regulatory burden, where providers would need to demonstrate how courses meet the criteria for these categories. Below, we set out concerns specific to each of the three categories, whilst also suggesting that the very nature of establishing such categorisations is problematic, bureaucratic and beset with unintended consequences.

With regard to a quantifiable category, we highlight that the proposed definition, which focuses on graduate salaries and professional employment, is currently a narrow, economic one. We have set out our concerns on this both: in Question 1 of this consultation; and in our response to the OfS Student Outcomes consultation. SNCs would disproportionately impact disadvantaged students and providers who recruit more of these students. These are often the providers undertaking the heaviest lifting when it comes to the government’s social mobility and levelling up agendas and are highly concentrated in London. A recent IfS/Sutton Trust report shows predominantly that the capital’s least selective post-1992 universities are the greatest engines of social mobility in the country and are, therefore, set to be hardest hit by any moves to implement SNCs, irrespective of shape or form.

We welcome a broader definition of value in the inclusion of a societal category, however, we would suggest that this list would need to be broadened further to ensure that a wide range of courses which offer societal benefit are included.

London Higher is also concerned that any type of subject level SNC would inhibit innovation within subjects, as providers would be incentivised to focus allocated places upon courses which would not incur SNCs, rather than new subjects which are crucial to meet the changing skills needs of the population, bridge the skills gap and support the Levelling Up agenda – not to mention meet the requirements of the LLE which is also currently being consulted on.

The ‘strategic importance’ category on p.36 of the consultation does not appear to include a list of courses or subjects, but instead includes political slogans e.g. ‘Build Back Better’ and appears to be open to significant interpretation. We would welcome further clarity on what a course would need to do in order to meet these criteria.

The government cannot accurately forecast which degree courses will provide quantifiable, societal, or strategically important outcomes five or more years before the students affected by the resulting SNCs enroll at university. This can be exemplified with the inclusion of ‘Building Back Better’ within the ‘strategically important’. Subjects which are now designed as ‘Building Back Better’ (whatever those might be) might be strategically important now, but we did not know we would need to ‘Build Back Better’ in 2018, when students due to graduate in 2022 were making their applications.

London Higher is concerned that there is no mention of languages within the strategic priorities or societal benefit category, despite the widespread concern regarding language provision, which is currently in freefall, and the need for a huge increase in the number of people speaking foreign languages to meet the Government’s Global Britain ambitions. There is currently no guidance on how SNCs would impact upon joint honours courses, which would also disproportionately impact upon language provision, much of which is undertaken as a joint honours course.

Question 4: Do you have any observations on the delivery and implementation of SNCs, including issues that would need to be addressed or unintended consequences of the policy set out in this section? Please give evidence where possible.

London Higher does not believe that SNCs can be designed or set without significant negative impact upon students, providers and the entire sector. SNCs will incur significant unintended consequences, which by their very nature are difficult to identify at this stage. We ask the government not to implement SNCs.

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