Universities could be fined for poor quality courses as watchdog vows to ‘stamp out’ bad practice

Universities could be fined for poor quality courses, under plans by the watchdog as it vows to “stamp out” bad practice.

The Office for Students (OfS) is to launch a crack down on degrees with a high number of students dropping out and low graduate employment rates, as well as those with significant grade inflation. 

Under the proposals, university departments and faculties could be investigated by the regulator if there is evidence that individual subjects are not up to scratch. 

Institutions could also be probed if particular groups of students – such as those from a particular ethnic minority or those from a deprived background – are dropping out at a significant rate or are not going on to get jobs after they graduate.

The watchdog said it will draw up a set of standards for courses to conform to, adding that those which continually fail to comply will be subject to “regulatory action” which could include a fine of up to £500,000.

“These proposals strengthen our ability to intervene where we have concerns,” said Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of the OfS.  

“We have previously been clear that we are determined to stamp out any pockets of low quality, and these proposals would not only raise the bar in terms of the quality overall, but would enable us to monitor quality at a subject level, as well as taking into account issues which might be affecting students from particular groups."

But Ms Dandridge warned that expectations should not be lowered for students from disadvantaged backgrounds. It would be “untenable” to have a regulatory system which allowed universities to recruit students from underrepresented groups but then set lower expectations for their success, she said. 

The watchdog believes that drawing up a new set of standards will help to tackle the issue of grade inflation. Almost four in five students now get a first class or an upper second university degree, figures earlier this year revealed. 

The most recent figures from the academic year 2018/19 show that 28 per cent of students graduated with a first and a further 48 per cent were awarded a 2.1, according to new figures from the Higher Education Statistical Agency. This is double the percentage that gained a first a decade ago.

The OfS will launch a consultation on Tuesday which will close in January and any new regulations will come into effect next year at the earliest.

The announcement by the watchdog comes after vice-Chancellors announced that they will draw up a charter to address the issue of so-called “Mickey Mouse” courses which are regarded by ministers as bad value for both students as well as the taxpayer.

University leaders have even suggested the possibility of bringing in “external inspection of courses as a way to rubber stamp the quality of their offering.

Ministers have previously criticised universities for running “threadbare” courses in a rush to get “bums on seats” and the Tory manifesto pledged to tackle the issue of low-value degrees.

Gavin Williamson, the education secretary, said that when it comes to university degrees he wants to “promote the best and squeeze out the worst”.  

Michelle Donelan, universities minister, said: “We want all university students, regardless of their background, to benefit from high quality, world-leading higher education.

“We must have robust regulation of our higher education system, which includes strong action if standards slip and principles which protect students’ interests.”

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