The British Academy responds to government proposals to apply student number caps to university courses

17 Jul 2023

The British Academy has today responded to proposals to limit the number of students taking so-called "low-value" degrees in England. The proposal, announced today as part of the government’s response to the Augar Review, would limit student applications to courses which do not have a high proportion of graduates getting a "graduate job" or continuing with postgraduate study.

The Academy, the UK’s national academy for the humanities and social sciences, has long argued that graduate destinations and salaries alone are limited proxies for the value of higher education. For instance, many graduates go into roles in the public sector, like teaching and social work, which can be low-paid compared to other graduate jobs yet are fulfilling for the individuals and essential to the health of society.

Meanwhile, there are lots of factors besides the quality of a course that affect student outcomes. These include sex and ethnicity, the institution the students attend, the performance of the economy into which they graduate, and the sector they work in. Many of the courses that would be deemed “low value” according to the proposed measures take the highest proportions of students with reported disabilities, mature learners, and those from low socio-economic backgrounds. These factors might also impact on student outcomes.

In response to the government’s proposals, Professor Simon Swain, the British Academy’s Vice-President for Research, said:

“The UK is already facing a significant gap in the number of higher-level skills needed for a heathy, thriving economy, many of which are furnished through studying the SHAPE disciplines (Social Sciences, Humanities and the Arts for People and the Economy). Indeed, eight out of ten of the fastest growing sectors in the economy are fuelled by these graduates so reducing the size of the university sector, by capping the number of students on some courses, is a backwards step.

“Let us be clear that this proposal will not benefit students. Instead, it will restrict student choice, limit opportunities – particularly for students from less advantaged backgrounds – and further undermine the financial sustainability of the higher education sector.

“That is not to say that every student should go to university. But every student should have the opportunity to go. If the government is concerned about individual outcomes then the solution is to add more options, not more barriers.”

Read the British Academy’s response to the Augar Review.

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