Higher education needs a sharper focus on graduate outcomes, the teaching of skills and improving access for those from disadvantaged backgrounds says the Education Committee in a report published today.
The Committee calls on both universities and the Government to ensure better outcomes for students, expand degree apprenticeships, make university more accessible to a more diverse range of students and tackle excessive Vice-Chancellor pay.
Rt Hon Robert Halfon MP, Chair of the Education Committee, said:
“We know our universities are among the best in the world and global leaders in teaching and research, but to maintain standards and to deliver for students it is vital we ask the question of whether our higher education system is fit for the 21st century.
"The blunt reality is that too many universities are not providing value for money and that students are not getting good outcomes from the degrees for which so many of them rack up debt. Too many institutions are neither meeting our skills needs or providing the means for the disadvantaged to climb the ladder of opportunity.
"Our higher education system needs to have a much sharper focus on developing skills. This could make an important contribution to filling the nation’s skills gaps and solving the UK’s productivity puzzle.
"Russell Group universities, including Oxford and Cambridge, should rise to this challenge, up their game and rocket boost degree apprenticeships.
"Too many institutions exist where Vice-Chancellors and senior management earn excessive amounts that does not represent value for either the student or the tax payer. Self-regulation should be out of the question and the Office for Students must enforce strict criteria on acceptable levels of pay that could be linked to average staff pay, performance and other measures."
Alistair Jarvis, Chief Executive of Universities UK, said:
“It is right to expect that students receive a high quality education and that all universities offer a high value experience. Our universities have a well-deserved international reputation for high quality teaching, learning and research, delivered by talented and dedicated staff. Universities have increased investment in teaching and learning and students continue to report record levels of satisfaction with their courses. Graduates leaving our universities are also increasingly in demand from employers. They are more likely to be in employment and earn on average £10,000 each year more than non-graduates.
“While there is still much more that needs to be done to improve social mobility, universities have made good progress in recent years. In 2017, 18-year-olds from the most disadvantaged areas in England were 82% more likely to enter higher education than they were in 2006. It is important that their work with schools and colleges continues.
“We agree that there has been a worrying drop in the number of part-time and mature students. We have recommended changes to the education system to better support universities offering shorter and more flexible courses.
"More flexible learning approaches, that fit around work and life, have the potential to tempt large numbers back in to education to improve themselves, boost social mobility and grow the economy.”
Tom Bewick, Chief Executive, Federation of Awarding Bodies, said:
“It is time to fundamentally re-evaluate what, as a country, we are trying to achieve with mass higher education. Reducing fees is tinkering around the edges. The most alarming statistic is the fact nearly half of all graduates are in non-graduate jobs. That denies opportunities to those that don’t have a degree and it fails to reach the potential of those that do.
"The knowledge economy model It seems is broken. What we need now is progress towards the know-how economy. That requires an education system that equips people with real skills for the world of work and empowers them to function as productive and informed citizens. Too many of our universities are falling short in their responsibilities to students, providing little more than a glorified 3-year holiday experience in glitzy buildings at taxpayers’ expense.
"Personally, I would support abandoning the 50% HE participation target and replacing it with targets to boost technical education, including more investment in our further education colleges and many more of our young people pursuing degree-level education via a high quality apprenticeship route."
Mark Dawe, Chief Executive, AELP said:
"After the cack-handed attempt at the weekend to bludgeon Augar into submission before the ink had even hit the paper, the select committee has rightly aligned its report’s conclusions with the post-18 review panel’s direction of travel in encouraging a framework that better meets the country’s skills needs.
"Like the MPs, AELP is an unequivocal supporter of degree apprenticeships which have not only help further raise the profile of apprenticeships with parents and employers but has also helped extend the ladder of opportunity for apprentices themselves.
"However, it is important that degree apprenticeships are not developed in isolation. For apprenticeships to be successful there needs to be clear progression paths from level 2 programmes as not all learners are capable of entering straight in at level 6 or level 7.
"In the context of the likely post-Brexit labour market challenges which may require more people to move to find jobs, maintenance loans should also be considered for higher and degree apprenticeships."
Dr Fiona Aldridge, Interim Director for Policy and Research, Learning and Work Institute, said:
"Today’s report from the Education Select Committee on Value for Money in Higher Education places a welcome focus on the need for greater flexibility within the higher education offer. It rightly recognises that the ‘one size fits all’ approach of 3 year full-time study often excludes those who need to balance learning with work or caring responsibilities, or with poor health or disability.
"In the context of an ever-changing economy, where people need to learn and develop their skills throughout their lives, Learning and Work Institute have repeatedly argued that the collapse in part-time and mature learners is disastrous.
"The recommendations made to create more flexible models of study, grow degree apprenticeships and re-instate maintenance grants have the potential to help turn around this decline.
"While much of the public debate around higher eduction focuses on tuition fees, this report helpfully recognises that value is not just about cost. The Committee’s call for greater transparency on the returns to higher education, notably through earnings and employment outcomes is important in supporting learners to make good choices.
"Taken together, the report provides a welcome steer to the forthcoming Augar review that higher education needs to be more inclusive, and deliver a better deal for all of its learners."
David Hughes, Chief Executive of the Association of Colleges, said:
“The Education Committee sets out a number of areas where students and the country do not appear to be getting value for money from the higher education system. The fundamental problem is that the current system is too wedded to a model of three year residential degree-level courses.
“The Government needs to be courageous through the Post-18 Review’s attempts to make higher education more accessible for all and we look forward to working with them to making it a reality. This will be critical if we are to have the successful economy we need post-Brexit.
"Colleges already provide education and training to more than 2.2 million people every day, including adult learners and those from disadvantaged backgrounds. They should be at the heart of delivering solutions as they already offer viable alternatives to the traditional degree courses.”
Simon Bracken, Higher Education Manager, Bath College:
"The Committee’s call to expand the variety of HE courses is welcome, given the continuing focus on standard three-year degrees within the UK’s overall higher education provision.
"Degree apprenticeships, foundation degrees and vocational higher nationals all provide opportunities for students to gain skills at level 4 and above, often in more flexible modes of delivery.
"Geographical location is also a contributing factor, with areas of the country (e.g. the South West) reliant on further education colleges to provide local and regionally relevant HE provision."
Aaron Bradbury, Senior Curriculum Leader, School of Education, Health and Community, University College Birmingham, said:
"Today’s report from the Education Select Committee on Value for money in Higher education is a welcome addition to offering choice to students within the Higher education Sector. However, for apprenticeships to be seen as an equal offer to traditional taught degrees means that Universities must see them as part of their offer with Higher Education qualifications and want to invest in them. It is within Universities where the academic rigour can be achieved within apprenticeship degrees.
"However, for this to work effectively employers must also be at the forefront of offering such innovative methods to allow choice and value for the learner within Higher Education. Widening participation is key and tackling social, cultural and economic barriers is evident within many policies, research papers and funding initiatives to enable individuals to reach their full potential. But, there needs to be much more work done within Universities themselves.
"There is a sense that we still see Apprenticeships Degrees as a “second class” choice, which could be a barrier to the start and success of them in the first place.
"It is about choice for the learner, and one that is seen as a positive step forwards which is a welcomed addition within the Higher Education Sector. "
A DfE spokesperson said:
"Our post-18 education review will look at how disadvantaged learners receive maintenance support and how we can make higher education accessible for all. It will also look at how we can ensure greater value for money for both students and taxpayers.
"More than £860 million is going into measures for 2018/19 to widen access to university and further education colleges for students from disadvantaged backgrounds; more than double what was being spent in 2009.
"We are also committed to helping future students and have increased the repayment threshold for post-2012 undergraduate student loans from £21,000 to £25,000 and will increase the repayment threshold again in April 2019 to £25,725.
"On top of this, last week the department announced a further £300,000 in funding for the next stage of the Open Data Competition which is creating mobile apps to help prospective students to choose the right courses and universities for them. More choice is also being offered in higher education from a wider perspective, with over 100 universities now offering degree apprenticeships, including Cambridge.
"Our reforms have seen record rates of disadvantaged 18-year-olds attending our world class universities and we want this to continue. That’s why we are pleased to see universities and further education colleges planning to spend more than £860 million on measures to improve access and outcomes for disadvantaged students.
"We know that what you study and where you study really matters, and we are introducing and developing digital tools that provide data on graduate outcomes that will begin to revolutionise how students choose the right university for them. We are also reviewing post-18 education and funding which will look at how we can ensure greater value for money for both students and taxpayers.
"We want to offer students more choice than ever before, which is why is it good news that over 100 universities are now on board and able to offer degree apprenticeships, including many Russell Group universities.
"This allows students to get a degree through an apprenticeship while earning a salary, training on the job, meaning they can bring their valuable skills to the workforce sooner than a traditional degree."
The report calls for universities to be more transparent about graduate prospects, in terms of both earnings and destinations.
ONS statistics for 2017 show that 49% of recent graduates were working in non-graduate roles across the UK.
The Committee believes that an increase in graduate outcomes information can support more informed choices for students and make institutions more accountable.
Skills and degree apprenticeships
Higher education must play a more significant role in meeting the country’s skills needs and preparing students for the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the report says.
According to the Government's recent Employer Skills Survey, two thirds of hard-to-fill vacancies are caused, at least in part, by a lack of skills, qualifications and experience among applicants.
The Committee calls for all institutions to offer degree apprenticeships which are ‘crucial’ to boosting the country’s productivity.
Social justice and flexible learning – reintroducing maintenance grants
The Committee is ‘deeply concerned’ by the fall in both part time and mature learners, and the impact on the socially disadvantaged going into higher education.
Universities must offer more flexible learning including credit transfer, work placements and pauses in study and move away from the ‘rigid’ traditional three-year undergraduate approach.
Research by the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) found that the raising of tuition fees in 2012 and the introduction of maintenance loans has led to students from the poorest backgrounds accruing debts over a three-year degree of £57,000. The Government should reinstate the means tested system of loans and maintenance grants.
Vice-Chancellor and senior management pay
The report finds that the ‘unjustifiably’ excessive salaries of Vice-Chancellors have become the norm rather than the exception and do not represent value for money for students or the taxpayer.
The Times Higher Education’s survey of Vice-Chancellors’ pay in 2016-17 showed that Vice-Chancellors were paid an average of £268,103 in salary, bonuses and benefits.
The Office for Students should take a firmer stance on senior management remuneration and not be afraid to intervene, especially when institutions pay their Vice-Chancellor more than eight times the average staff salary.
The Committee calls on the OfS to publish criteria on acceptable levels of pay that could be linked to average staff pay, performance and other measures.
The report also notes the steep increase in unconditional offers made to students and calls for the Office for Students to clamp down on their use, warning that their practice threatens to be detrimental to the interests of students and to undermine the higher education system.
List of recommendations and conclusions can be found on p37 of the report.
The full terms of reference for the inquiry as well as written evidence and transcripts of the oral evidence sessions are available on the Committee’s website here.