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Universities could be fined for poor quality courses

England’s higher education regulator is launching a consultation setting out how it plans to “raise the bar on quality of standards” in higher education, including fining institutions.

Proposed measures include fines for poor quality courses, to be judged by metrics related to continuation, completion and progression into employment.

The Office for Students (OfS) currently requires institutions to ensure at least 75% of their full-time first-degree students progress to the second year of student.

In the consultation, published on 17 November, the regulator proposes to “adopt an approach to setting numerical baselines that would result in an increased, more challenging performance requirement for all providers”.

The document states that a 75% continuation rate is not a “level of performance” that “would pass a public interest test on an ongoing basis”, and it suggests that that upping the number to 90% is “likely to appear to any reasonable person to be a good outcome and not represent any regulatory concern”.

Institutions that fail to address concerns about quality could potentially be found to be in breach of their registration conditions and face action, such as a fine, or they could have their registration revoked.

Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of the OfS, said that the regulator can use its “full range of powers” if any of their registration conditions are breached.

We are also making it clear that we do not accept that expectations should be lowered for students from disadvantaged backgrounds

– Nicola Dandridge

She said: “These proposals strengthen our ability to intervene where we have concerns.

“We have previously been clear that we are determined to stamp out any pockets of low quality, and these proposals would not only raise the bar in terms of the quality overall, but would enable us to monitor quality at a subject level, as well as taking into account issues which might be affecting students from particular groups.

“We are also making it clear that we do not accept that expectations should be lowered for students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

“All students are entitled to the same minimum level of quality and outcomes, and it would be untenable to have a regulatory system which allowed universities to recruit students from underrepresented groups but then set lower expectations for their success.”

The consultation is taking place at an early stage in policy development so that a wide range of views can be taken into account before the watchdog consults on more detailed proposals in 2021.

Universities Minister Michelle Donelan said: “I am pleased that the OfS aims to raise the bar on quality and standards. We must have robust regulation of our higher education system, which includes strong action if standards slip and principles which protect students’ interests.

“We want all university students, regardless of their background, to benefit from high quality, world-leading higher education. Our manifesto promised to explore ways to tackle low quality courses, and we continue to support the Office for Students on this.”

I am pleased that the OfS aims to raise the bar on quality and standards. We must have robust regulation of our higher education system, which includes strong action if standards slip and principles which protect students’ interests

– Michelle Donelan

This news comes as Universities UK (UUK) said it would create a charter to ensure that institutions in England identify and improve low quality courses.

A UUK spokeswoman said: “The overwhelming majority of higher education courses are high quality and offer good value for students, but we want to address concerns that some could deliver more – including for students, taxpayers, and employers. Yesterday [Monday 16 October] we announced the development of a new charter to help universities take consistent and more transparent approaches in tackling low quality or low value courses.”

 

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