Standards crackdown ‘not anti-university’, minister insists

Michelle Donelan addresses criticisms of flagship policies at Higher Education Policy Institute conference

June 9, 2022
Michelle Donelan

The Westminster government’s crackdown on “poor quality” courses is not “anti-university”, England’s higher education minister has insisted, while ruling out introducing limits on the overall number of students. 

Michelle Donelan offered an olive branch to nervous university leaders after “boots-on-the-ground” inspections were announced at eight higher education providers but claimed that even a small number of substandard courses could damage confidence in the sector as a whole and put off students from applying.

“It is not anti-university to identify the pockets of poor quality and drive improvement. It is not anti-NHS to observe where a hospital needs improvement, nor is it anti-education when Ofsted finds a school inadequate. The secret of world-class public services really is built upon a combination of autonomy and accountability,” Ms Donelan told the Higher Education Policy Institute’s conference. 

In the wide-ranging speech the minister also addressed plans to reintroduce student number controls after a consultation on the issue concluded. Plans to bring back caps – last seen in 2015 – have been met with widespread opposition from the sector, with Universities UK calling it a “flawed and backward” move. 

A sector-wide cap was previously included in the options under consideration but Ms Donelan said: “I would like to be clear that no one is talking about limiting the overall number of people going into higher education.

“It is in my view that we spend too much time debating whether there should be more or fewer young people going into university when instead we should be focusing on ensuring that every young person has a range of routes available to them. Be that university, be that college and apprenticeships but all of these routes need to be good, high-quality options. That is why targeted limits on low-quality courses to prevent courses that are known to be of low quality from [proliferating] makes a good deal of sense.” 

The government also plans to introduce controversial new quality baselines – including the requirement that 60 per cent of graduates go into professional jobs − and Ms Donelan addressed some of the concerns about how outcomes of courses will be measured. 

She said it would not be “narrowly defined by salary of graduates” but stressed she did want to see “courses where students are supported to complete that course and where those courses give them the employability skills that will allow them to progress”.

Asked about what evidence she had for previous comments about the stifling of free speech on campus – something the government is currently trying to introduce legislation over – Ms Donelan said: “The evidence base I personally have are the multiple students that have spoke to me over the last few years regarding free speech and also academics. Of course we’ve also seen...various reports over the years. To an extent, that is only the tip of the iceberg because there’s a very chilling nature of this that is stifling debate.”

The minister used the speech to announce that she has created a new position of student support champion, which will be held first by Edward Peck, vice-chancellor of Nottingham Trent University. He will be tasked with facilitating a more joined-up approach to student mental health and helping universities spot the warning signs that people might be struggling. 

“There is a determination within higher education institutions to get this right and I will promote effective and evidence-based best practice across the sector, enabling universities to offer the widest possible range of ways to engage students,” Professor Peck said.

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