Two initiatives focusing on the quality and value of courses at UK universities were announced this week by the Office for Students (OfS) and Universities UK (UUK). These announcements raise fundamental questions about the purpose of higher education, which both the University Minister, Michelle Donelan  and Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson spoke about earlier this year when they announced more funding into further education courses and a move away from the labour target to get 50% of young people into higher education.  The ideas the ministers outlined are now starting to be turned into action and more concrete policy.

The aims of the initiatives

The OfS launched a consultation aiming to ‘set new, more challenging, regulatory requirements for student outcomes’. One of the main purposes will be to define ‘quality’ and ‘standards’ more clearly in order to set a minimum baseline requirement for HE providers. Meanwhile, UUK  has set out to develop a charter to help ensure they take a consistent and transparent approach to identifying and improving potentially low value or low quality courses.

Both these initiatives come on the back of criticism from both government and some stakeholders about the value added for graduates that attend university. An IFS report earlier this year highlighted that 1 in 5 students, about 70 000 each year, who attend university end up earning less than if they had not.

However, income cannot be seen as the only indicator of the quality and value of a course. Earlier this year UUK President and Vice-Chancellor of Brunel University London, Julia Buckingham, rightly criticised using graduate salaries as the sole indicator and measure of course value, raising the question that highlights the core issue of this debate; how do we define ‘quality’ and the value it brings to students, society and the economy?

A narrow definition of value as graduate income does not help to improve higher education. It certainly does not help meet the needs of employers.

How do we measure quality and is there another angle to what we define as ‘quality’?

There are a number of ways that policy makers have looked at how to assess ‘value’ in HE. And though return on investment for graduates and the economy is not the only factor, it is certainly one that cannot be overlooked. The Augar Review recommended that universities ‘bear down on low quality courses’ and emphasised the importance of producing a skilled workforce and tackling skills gaps. Filling skill gaps is critical in order to give students value in terms of a qualified job but also to build the strong and innovative economy the Government has set out as their aspiration. Whilst the UK is preparing itself to become a world leader in science and research, ensuring that graduates have the right skills to drive that ambition will be critical to making that happen.

The Open University’s Business Barometer 2020 reported in September that employers have already spent £6.6 billion to deal with short term skills gaps this year (compared to £4.4 billion in 2019). Despite the increase in spend and a tightening labour market this year, 56% of UK organisations continue to experience skills shortages and 61% say that they are not as agile as they need to be due to the lack of a skilled workforce.

The NCUB R&D taskforce report launched last week also recommended a range of measures to support a diverse pipeline of R&D and innovation talent for the future and help to grow and deliver talent.

The UK will only have a highly skilled workforce if the higher education sector engages with employers and is responsive to the needs of the economy. Therefore, responsiveness to the ever changing labour market must be included within the measures we use to assess the value of university courses.