The London higher education sector is one of our greatest national assets. As well as being home to the largest concentration of higher education institutions of any UK region, London boasts two of the UK’s four universities in the QS global top 10. Collectively, London’s higher education institutions make a significant contribution to the economic health and prosperity of the nation, educating over half a million students, generating over £12bn in GDP and supporting 223,000 jobs across all sectors of the UK economy. Despite operating in a region with the highest wealth inequalities in England and in areas with very high levels of deprivation, London’s higher education institutions serve as remarkable engines of opportunity, taking in relatively high rates of disadvantaged pupils and preparing them well to secure fulfilling and well-paid careers. It is not by coincidence that all 12 of the top 12 institutions for social mobility are located in London.
However, this success in delivering opportunity is now at risk – not just in London but throughout the English regions. The UK Government’s recent ‘Higher Education (HE) reform’ proposals, including the imposition of course-level student number controls for putative ‘quality’-related reasons, and cuts to funding for foundation years, do not create opportunities for students – they take them away. Moreover, the argument that these measures will benefit the taxpayer is, at best, highly dubious. These changes will deprive individuals of choice and opportunity, add further pressure to the financial viability of our universities and risk exacerbating existing skills shortages in key areas.
By publishing these proposals, the UK Government has shown it has failed to heed repeated warnings that the imposition of number controls will disproportionally impact the prospects of working-class and Black and Minority-Ethnic students. The proposals also do nothing to address ostensible issues of course quality, mistaking as they do a narrow set of student outcomes measures for indicators of value for money.
At London Higher, our own analysis of outcomes data for London-based providers suggests that the Government’s approach to HE reform could have some unintended and damaging consequences, both for students and the wider economy. Should number controls be implemented as proposed, the providers in London which face restrictions on recruitment (and therefore the greatest financial strain) are the exact same providers that currently educate the largest proportions of free school meals-eligible students of all universities nationwide. In other words, the providers that do the heaviest lifting on social mobility are those set to be penalised the most.
As for the courses likely to be subject to stricter controls, these are predominantly to be found in digital and creative areas, which happen to be two of the fastest-growing sectors of the capital’s economy and have been highlighted as key areas by the Mayor of London. Imposing number controls on these programmes could needlessly cut off a vital skills pipeline for these lucrative London industries and hold back the type of economic growth that is of benefit to the nation l – including both students and taxpayers. The current proposals suggest that the UK Government believes this supply issue will be resolved by students simply studying elsewhere, making different subject choices or taking alternative training pathways into these industries in the future. Yet, this approach fails to recognise the realities of student demand for local HE provision and, as recent research by Kingston University London makes clear, of employer demand for higher level skills. Neither of these requirements can be delivered by straitjacketing HE providers and hoping that other areas of the tertiary system will fill the shortfall.
The Government’s equality impact assessment, stating there will be an overall positive impact as result of the reduction in funding for classroom-based foundation years, is puzzling. While it is true that students will see a headline reduction in fees, this will make many courses financially unviable, so there will be fewer options available. Foundation year courses cost the same, often more, to deliver as a standard undergraduate degree because additional student support is required, but it is thanks to this investment that foundation year students are able to go on and succeed in Level 6 courses and beyond. Many foundation year courses also support students progressing into careers in key shortage areas such as STEM and healthcare, so reducing funding to this essential pathway could threaten the talent we will have available in the future to power our public services and private businesses.
While graduate outcomes data may capture popular headlines, the assessment of a course’s value based on historical earnings does not capture the full benefits of a higher education and is unlikely to be a reliable indicator of a course’s worth. The LEO data come with some significant caveats and HMRC data exclude certain groups such as those who are self-employed, including entrepreneurs and start-up founders, which are arguably an important part of the Government’s growth strategy. We know that over a third of student startups are founded at London universities, for example.
Furthermore, students from disadvantaged backgrounds have been proven to take longer to reach their full potential earning power, so the number of years after graduation this information is based on is crucial. Many jobs which are strategically important professions to not only London, but the whole of the UK such as nursing, social work and teaching may attract lower wages. For this reason, any measures of quality and value should not be based on graduate income data alone.
We now urge the government to ensure that any negative rhetoric around certain courses does not damage public perception of higher education to a greater extent than it already has, and ensure that opportunity and choice is open to all.