Universities will be told that they “require improvement” in an Ofsted-style ranking if they do not tackle high drop-out rates, the student watchdog will say today.
They will also have to ensure that more graduates get professional jobs. The Office for Students (OfS) warns that those offering poor-quality courses will face regulatory action.
It is launching a consultation to set minimum thresholds for student outcomes, such as how many students complete their degree and what jobs they get. Universities that fail to reach this standard could face investigation, with fines and restrictions on their access to student loan funding among the potential sanctions.
The consultation concludes in March and the new requirements are expected to be in place by the summer.
Lord Wharton, chairman of the OfS, wrote in Times Red Box that he wanted to ensure students knew the difference between attractive marketing and the “hard facts of performance”.
He said: “Very few parents drop their children at university thinking they’ll end up dropping out. Universities and colleges know this and extol the academic and economic benefits of their courses to students and their families.
“We need to protect [students] from poor courses which offer few real benefits. They invest significant amounts of time and money in their studies and should be sure that, if they work hard, they will earn a qualification of value which stands the test of time.”
He added: “One argument we expect to hear again is that courses with high proportions of students from disadvantaged backgrounds should not be subject to such intense scrutiny, or to the same standards as other courses. I do not accept this argument, which would only serve to hard-wire disadvantage into the system.” He said taxpayers, who contribute significantly to higher education, also needed reassurance.
OfS said there would be different thresholds for full and part-time students at undergraduate and postgraduate level. For full-time students studying a first degree, the proposed thresholds are for 80 per cent of students to continue into a second year, 75 per cent to complete their qualification and 60 per cent to go into professional employment or further study.
Universities UK, which represents 140 institutions, said that although UK universities had a strong record “there is a need to address public concerns about potentially low-value courses”.
Lauren Aitchison, 33, is a caseworker for an MP and a writer working on her first book.
“I grew up in Alyth, a small town in Perthshire and went to Aberdeen University in 2006 to study English Literature,” she said.
“I dropped out of university during the first year Christmas break, so three months after starting the course. I was only 17 and my self-esteem was incredibly low. I thought I wasn’t clever enough to be there and it was all a mistake.
“I went to college instead to study journalism and excelled at it. I didn’t go on to work as a journalist but the skills I learned on that course serve me every day.”
Asked if more should be done to support those who drop out to apply to another course, she said: “The support needs to come before they even apply in the first place, particularly for those from working class backgrounds. They may be the first person in their family to go to university so they can’t get practical advice at home. And so many people go to university simply because it’s expected of them when another option may suit them better.
“Most of my friends who studied English went on to be teachers, and I would make a terrible teacher. I think I’d be doing a similar job now, if I hadn’t dropped out, but the friendships and relationships I’ve had would be completely different. That’s what makes a life and I’m glad everything panned out the way it did.”