Universities minister issues ‘bums on seats’ warning over cheap degree courses

The Universities Minister said institutions need to take responsibility (PA) Credit: PA Wire/PA Images

Universities must not put “bums on seats” ahead of providing high-quality degrees that offer students value for money and good earning potential, the Universities Minister has said.

In a stark warning, Sam Gyimah said institutions need to take responsibility and “police themselves” to ensure they are not offering “threadbare” and “cheap” courses.

He argued that there is variability between courses and institutions in potential future income that is a cause for concern.

Speaking to reporters at the Higher Education Policy Institute conference in London, Mr Gyimah said it was important for students, the taxpayer and the higher education system that universities “take the responsibility to police themselves around existing course offering, but also in terms of any future courses – thinking very carefully, is this about “wanting to expand” or is it about offering a high quality degree worthy of our university sector, and higher learning that students will benefit from”.

He went on to say that he believes people should “follow their passions”, but that they need clarity about what they can expect from different courses and universities.

“I think universities have got to be open and transparent, this is going to be about openness and transparency that allows people to make the right choices,” he said.

“And it’s not whether or not you offer creative arts, it’s whether or not you offer creative arts that is truly competitive as well, so you are not putting on courses that are cheap to offer, they’re threadbare and they’re not as competitive as they could be.”

Mr Gyimah said there have been two major changes in past six years – the tuition fee hike and lifting the cap on student numbers.

“But I’m yet to see a lot of serious thinking at a system level about how actually universities operate,” he said.

“How do you deal with class sizes, how do you deal with lectures, when you’re expanding this much? Is it right that you have a lecture hall in which there are some people at the back of the hall without even a desk to write on? This is stuff that I hear on my tour of universities.”

Earlier, he told delegates that it is important when would-be students make decisions about higher education that they “know what you’re getting into” and what the choices are.

He said that if, for example, a student is doing a creative arts course, they know “which one is the best creative arts course, not just one where you can get bums on seats. That’s what’s important.”

In his speech to the conference, Mr Gyimah said new findings on graduate earnings, published today, “demonstrate that studying the same subject at a different institution can yield a very different earnings premium”.

“The choices that students make about what, and where they study, does matter,” he said.

From a salary perspective, there are many institutions and courses that are delivering big benefits, Mr Gyimah said.

But he added: “There are a clutch of courses that seem not to be.”

Figures show that women who study at the bottom 100 courses have earnings up to 64% less – around £17,000 – than for the average degree, after graduation, the minister said.

For men, the figure is 67% (£21,000).

Alistair Jarvis, chief executive of Universities UK, said: “A university degree remains an excellent investment.

“On average, graduates continue to earn £10,000 per year more than the average non-graduate and are more likely to be in employment.

“When looking at graduate salaries, it is important also to take into account the regional differences and socio-economic inequalities that exist in society, that a university degree cannot fully address.

“It is important that we do not use graduate salaries as the single measure of value. Many universities specialise in fields such as the arts, the creative industries, nursing and public sector professions that, despite making an essential contribution to society and the economy, pay less on average.”

Lord Mandelson told the conference that higher student tuition fees mean that “universities have to do even more to demonstrate their utility to the future lives and careers of their students”.

“Many parents regard a place at university for their son or daughter and the qualification they will gain as essential for their future prospects,” he said.

“But fees at this level will make others think twice about whether the cost is worth it.

“So the job of those involved in running universities is to ensure that the courses they mount really are relevant and attractive and that the teaching really is as good as it can be.

“That the qualification achieved is really worth the paper it is written on and that a student’s time at university not only provides a bankable skillset but really does turn those young people into rounded, creative, evaluative and confident individuals.”

Lord Mandelson, who is chancellor of Manchester Metropolitan University, previously served as Business Secretary, with responsibility for higher education, under Gordon Brown’s Labour government.