Universities in England have been told to set ambitious targets to support students into graduate jobs, as the universities minister urged vice-chancellors to make social mobility “as much about getting on as it is about getting in”.
Under plans to be overseen by the Office for Students (OfS), the higher education regulator, universities will face sanctions if they fail to reduce dropout rates among disadvantaged students and set targets for the proportion going on to well-paid jobs at the end of their course.
“It is a fantastic achievement that so many disadvantaged students get into university but it is unacceptable that so many still find themselves on courses where fewer than 50% of those who start have good outcomes after leaving, or are encouraged on to courses that providers know have poor completion rates,” Michelle Donelan, the universities and colleges minister, told university leaders at a conference in London.
The changes will require universities to design new five-year access and participation plans, which Donelan stressed would need to be easily understood by potential applicants. Institutions will be able to take into account their own circumstances.
“From now on universities with poor outcomes will have to set ambitious targets for reducing dropout rates and improving progression to graduate employment,” Donelan said. “But they must be ambitious or the plans will not be approved by the OfS. And the OfS will then hold you to account for meeting those targets, with consequences if they are not met.”
Donelan also used the event to unveil some details of the government’s promised lifelong loan entitlement, which was announced by Boris Johnson in September 2020 but will not be in place until 2025.
Once operating, the entitlement will offer funding for up to four years of education for adults in England, which can be used to pay for undergraduate or postgraduate courses or split over several modules and courses below degree level, as well as technical or vocational qualifications.
Donelan promised a consultation on the policy and said successful bids for piloting short courses would be announced shortly.
Describing the loan entitlement as a revolution similar to the founding of the NHS, Donelan said: “It will usher in a complete culture shift … toward fulfilling the needs of those who stand to benefit from higher education and higher technical education but who at the moment do not see it as an option for them.”
She added: “I am calling on the entire sector to partner with us to help shape, publicise and deliver this once-in-a-generation reform.”
Steve West, the president of Universities UK and vice-chancellor of UWE Bristol, said: “It is positive to see a focus on part-time courses, higher technical qualifications and degree apprenticeships and we look forward to working with government to boost demand for more diverse and flexible ways of learning.”
He said universities remained “committed to accelerating access to higher education, particularly for those from disadvantaged backgrounds, while ensuring students have a high-quality university experience”.