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Ministers could limit the number of students in low-income art degrees in England | Higher education policy

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The government is considering new plans to limit the number of creative arts students and other degrees with lower pay returns as part of its spending review negotiations, the Guardian has learned.

With outstanding student loans reaching £ 140bn last year, the Treasury is reportedly keen to reduce the number of students in England who take courses that produce lower wages and therefore less likely to repay their loans.

Sources say the Department of Education’s (DfE) review of post-18 education, promised alongside the spending review, is considering ways to limit the numbers. There is speculation that they could use new minimum A-level requirements to raise the entry bar for some courses and therefore reduce the number, especially at newer universities.

A source close to the government said: “They would like to check the numbers in specific subjects. The Treasury is particularly obsessed with negative returns in creative artistic matters.

The university regulator has already confirmed that it will cut its funding for artistic subjects by 50% – a decision described as “catastrophic” by artists and musicians.

The new speculation sparked an angry backlash from the bosses of national universities. Professor Steve West, Chairman of the UK Universities Vice Chancellors’ Group and University of the West of England Vice Chancellor, said: “Trying to choose any topic would be arbitrary and inevitably fueled by prejudices. “

He warned, “It would be a brave and foolish government to tell today’s GCSE students that there will be fewer opportunities in college for them than their older siblings.

Anne Carlisle, vice-chancellor of Falmouth University, who specializes in creative courses, said that restricting the number of students would lead to a decrease in the number of people working in the creative industries: “It’s amazing that this government thinks it can plan the workforce like that. “

She said: “I think part of the problem is that this particular government seems to have fewer members who really engage in cultural and creative events. It looks like the creative disciplines have been collectively forgotten by a group of people who are now making simplistic assumptions about their value. “

The government should abandon its “raw segmentation” of science and technology and arts and design, when in reality the disciplines are working together to solve complex problems, she said.

Anne Carlisle: “How incredible that this government thinks it can plan the workforce like that. Photography: Artur Tixiliski

In 2018, research from the Institute for Fiscal Studies funded by the DfE showed that men with creative arts degrees earned less on average at age 29 than people with similar backgrounds who did not go to college at all. .

Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute think tank and former government special adviser, said he opposed the idea of ​​selecting particular topics, warning ministers would eventually regret appearing “anti- intellectuals and as if they only cared about money “.

He added: “If ministers are concerned that creative disciplines may not perform well in terms of income, put this information in the hands of young people, but do not oppose it if they are determined to succeed in these fields.” .

Social mobility experts warn that if ministers decide to deny loans to students with grades below A, it would penalize students from more disadvantaged backgrounds.

Professor Graham Galbraith, Vice Chancellor of the University of Portsmouth, said: “There is an important socio-economic determinant in the educational outcomes of young people. If the government is to implement a minimum qualification rule, it must ensure that it is based on the abilities of individuals and not on an approximation of the school they attended or the social class they attended. belong.

More than half of young people now enter higher education and the demand for diploma courses is increasing every year. The UK has just entered a 10-year explosion in the number of 18-year-olds in the population.

The government said in its interim response to the Augar exam in January that “we are currently too biased towards degrees first and foremost”, and before he was sacked, former Education Secretary Gavin Williamson scoffed at “dead end courts that leave people in debt”.

DataHE, a consultancy that advises universities on admissions, calculated that if the government attempted to freeze college places at pre-pandemic 2019 levels, by 2030, about a third of young people who would currently go to college would be unable to do so.

Mark Corver, its founder, said: “If ministers limit the number when demand increases, young people in the future will be much less likely to go to university. “

Simon Marginson, professor of higher education at the University of Oxford, said no other country intends to cap university expansion. “The evidence that there are unfulfilled opportunities for people without a university degree is not strong, and politics does not make sense. Families generally and rightly consider graduates to be better off than non-graduates.

Hillman said, “The view that too many people are going to college is deeply rooted in the Conservative Party. But he warned that the government would not succeed in “leveling” troubled regions of the country without universities. “Southend doesn’t just need to become a city, it also needs a university of its own,” he said.

Professor John Cater, vice-chancellor of Edge Hill University in Lancashire, questioned the government’s definitions of success. “We actually have one of the most selfless groups of 18 year olds I can remember, and I don’t think they judge their chances in life solely on what they earn.”

Few in the industry anticipate a reduction in tuition fees to £ 9,250 per year in the expenditure review, although sources say the Treasury and DfE have debated it. But vice-chancellors believe the spending review is likely to lower the loan repayment threshold as graduates start paying off debt sooner.

A spokesperson for the DfE said he had not commented on “speculation” about the spending review. She said: “There is no plan to limit the growth of the higher education sector.”

But she added: “The government is committed to raising the standards of education after 16 years by ensuring that everyone can acquire the right skills to secure well-paying jobs which are essential to sustaining the economy. “


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