Latest Office for Students’ proposals threaten humanities and social sciences courses

25 Jan 2021

The Office for Students’ (OfS) proposals for regulating quality in higher education could inadvertently lead to the closure of vital humanities and social science courses and in turn limit opportunities for students from disadvantaged backgrounds, the British Academy says today.

The OfS, the regulator of higher education in England, is consulting on its approach to regulating the quality and standards of higher education providers. This includes a proposal to set sector-wide benchmarks at each level of study for student outcomes based on continuation, completion and employment metrics, and to assess institutions at a subject level.

However, the Academy argues in its submission to the consultation that, if adopted, these proposals could have an unintended adverse impact on the health and vibrancy of the SHAPE disciplines – the Social Sciences, Humanities and the Arts for People and the Economy.

To avoid the consequences of failing to meet the benchmark, the Academy is concerned that institutions may decide to close courses, creating cold spots in provision and limiting opportunities for students from disadvantaged backgrounds – who are less likely to relocate – to study these subjects locally.

The proposed approach will assess the quality of a course in part according to the number of students who go into ‘professional or managerial’ jobs. Many SHAPE graduates go into low paid yet socially valuable and fulfilling roles in, for example, the charity sector or the creative industries, which may not be captured by this metric.

The Academy also notes that:

  • The new approach needs to allow for regional and sectoral variations in the graduate job market, reflecting the factors which influence the outcomes a student may be able to achieve
  • Not all graduates will be in a ‘graduate job’ 15 months after graduation, the point at which data is collected in the Graduate Outcome survey, but will nonetheless go on to follow highly successful career paths
  • The concept of a ‘graduate job’ remains contested, making it challenging to use a metrics-based approach to capture and measure whether graduates are in such roles.

Professor Simon Swain FBA, Vice-President for Research, said:

“Student outcomes are the result of a broad range of factors, including institutional reputation, gender, ethnicity, socio-economic background and the performance of the economy – not just the course a student has taken. Graduate destinations are problematic as an indicator of the merits of an institution or a course.

“We are concerned that the proposed approach will fail to reflect the fact that many SHAPE graduates go into roles – for example, in the charity sector, in overseas development, or in the creative industries – that may not be considered ‘graduate jobs’ but which nevertheless make substantial use of the skills and knowledge gained from their course. Some institutions specialise in courses leading to opportunities in these areas and they should be encouraged and rewarded for doing so rather than facing difficult choices which could arise from the adoption of the OfS proposals. The effects of any course closures are felt most keenly by those disadvantaged students who want to study these subjects but who cannot afford to relocate.

“We look forward to discussing these issues with the Office for Students and to helping OfS find an approach that helps it in its important work of regulating standards in higher education while maintaining a broad and balanced provision of all subjects in all areas.”

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