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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Nimo Omer

Tuesday briefing: What Rishi Sunak’s plan to cut down on ‘rip-off’ courses actually means

Aberystwyth University students in a lecture on the campus.
Aberystwyth University students in a lecture on the campus. Photograph: aberCPC/Alamy

Good morning. The Conservatives have announced crackdowns on many things during their time in power: unions, antisocial behaviour, asylum seekers, people who claim benefits, protests – you name it, this government has promised to get tough on it. Now, the prime minister is promising to crack down on “rip-off” degrees, to “widen access”, “boost jobs” and “grow the economy”.

The government insists that what it pejoratively describes as “low value” degrees offer little in the way of job prospects and earning potential but still leave students saddled with debt.

Under the new policy, courses that do not have a high proportion of graduates getting a professional job, going into postgraduate study or starting a business will be capped. Critics have argued that most of the institutions and courses that will be affected are the ones that have a high proportion of working class and ethnic minority students. And those working in higher education have said that this will undeniably affect the revenue of some universities as this measure is likely to act as a “red flag” to students who will not want to be enrolled in a course that has been deemed “low value”.

For today’s newsletter, I spoke to Josh Freeman, policy manager at the Higher Education Policy Institute, about the impact of these new measures on students and universities across the country. That’s right after the headlines.

Five big stories

  1. Health | The final results from a landmark study confirmed that donanemab slowed cognitive decline in Alzheimer’s patients by 35%. Trial results of a second drug, lecanemab, reduced the rate by 27%. After this stunning trial data, health regulators are being urged to rapidly approve the two dementia drugs in order to ensure millions of people who could benefit are not “left in limbo”.

  2. Housing | Private landlords in England have seen their assets grow in value by £400bn from rising house prices in the last three decades, which is enough money to build at least 3m council homes, research suggests.

  3. Public sector pay | In a report undermining Rishi Sunak’s central argument against larger wage settlements, a leading thinktank has said raising pay by 10% on average for public sector workers would not add significantly to inflation.

  4. Labour | Jamie Driscoll, a leftwing regional mayor who has been blocked from standing as a Labour candidate to contest the north-east mayoralty, has announced that he is resigning from the party to run as an independent candidate. Labour has become embroiled in a factionalism row since Driscoll was excluded from the race because of an onstage appearance with Ken Loach, the film director and expelled Labour member.

  5. Water industry | South East Water has reported a pre-tax loss of nearly £75m, which it blamed in part on the cost of dealing with last year’s “extreme weather events” including the record-breaking heatwave.

In depth: ‘Cash-strapped universities may start cutting humanities and creative courses’

Rishi Sunak visits a school in London on 17 July 2023.
Rishi Sunak visits a school in London on 17 July 2023. Photograph: Reuters

With three imminent byelections and an economy that is still on a downward spiral, you would think that Rishi Sunak would be focused on ways to keep a grip on power. So why has he turned his attention to 20-year-old drama students and their lecturers? The prime minister insists that this new policy is at least partly intended to reinforce the message that “you don’t have to go to university to succeed in life”. And that is true. But many argue this assumes that the only reason anyone goes into higher education is financial and professional success. Could the real reason for his renewed tough stance on higher education have anything to do with the fact that academia is “full of people who don’t vote Tory”?


What is a “low value” degree?

The government has yet to release details on how they are assessing “low value” degrees, but it is likely to be based on the Office for Students B3 framework. The framework sets out the conditions that degrees need to meet in order to be considered “high value”. “The key metrics are continuation rates, completion rates and graduate outcomes,” Freeman says. Graduate outcomes specifically focusses on progression to professional jobs and postgraduate study.

These measures have been criticised as being shortsighted, as they look at where graduates are 15 months out of university. Many young people will have multiple jobs across different careers in their lifetimes, and a measure that focuses on such a narrow period of time can lose sight of that.

A 2018 report by the Department for Education and the Institute for Fiscal Studies found that the “graduate premium” is the weakest in those initial years, but then over time increases. And, perhaps crucially, the new measure also implies that everyone is seeking the same kind of success from their degrees. But every student does not want to immediately walk into a high-paying graduate job, nor do they all need to open businesses. The Institute of Student Employers has found that many performing arts graduates become self-employed and combine work as an artist with other jobs. Even though they may not receive a huge salary, a lot of these graduates continue to be engaged with their field of study throughout their career and are happy with their work-life balance. Not to mention the fact that the creative industries account for over 5% of UK GDP.


Why now?

There are two big trends that help explain why Sunak has formally announced this policy now. “The first is this shift towards caring about outcomes,” Freeman says. Now that student loans are high and the government is putting far more money into higher education, there is a greater sense that the government needs to get something back from this investment and ensure that it is fair to taxpayers. “And the second trend is the pressure on vocational education, which is underpinned by a belief that perhaps the number of students going to university is too high”. The logical next step therefore is to start winding down, or entirely cutting, courses that are not delivering the results that the government wants.


‘Reinforcing the class ceiling’

The top 20 or so universities, comprising mostly of the Russell group and Oxbridge, will probably be unaffected by this measure as they perform very well in these metrics. “It’s going to be smaller or ‘less prestigious’ institutions that will feel the effects,” Freeman says. These institutions, that tend to attract more students from working class and ethnic minority backgrounds, are the most at risk of their courses being labelled low value.

“Part of the problem with that is we think the way ‘low value’ courses are going to be assessed is not contextual, so it will not account for the fact that students are coming from a more difficult background in the first place,” Freeman says. This means that they might have struggled to get a job regardless of the university course they took because of barriers in certain professional sectors, while a student from a more privileged background would not have faced such obstacles because of their socioeconomic situation. Bridget Phillipson, the shadow education secretary, has said: “This is simply an attack on the aspirations of young people and their families by a government that wants to reinforce the class ceiling, not smash it.”


An upside down approach

Another flaw that critics have noted is that some of the degrees with the lowest earning potential are public sector jobs, like social care, where the salary is set by the government. The complication here is that the government has characterised the courses that do not have high earning prospects as being frivolous or unserious, but few would argue that we need fewer social workers.

Similarly, graduates are having trouble entering the creative industries not because their courses are meaningless or easy, but because the sector has been experiencing a wider decline, partially as a result of the decrease in public funding. The number of working-class people in the arts has already shrunk by half since the 1970s. Cutting off another route into the sector is likely to exacerbate that trend.


The impact

This announcement has not come as a surprise to those who work in the sector, and is in fact less damaging than some of the mooted proposals. “They were thinking of doing minimum eligibility requirements, but they’re not doing that,” says Freeman. “They were thinking of scrapping all funding for foundation years, but they’re not doing that, they’ve only reduced the fees.”

Academia is also, by its nature, a slow-moving sector and implementing this policy will take time so any immediate change is unlikely. But the mood music will impact universities regardless. “By the time it is implemented, this government may no longer be in power and the Labour party has made a pretty significant commitment to creative subjects,” Freeman says. “However, if there is a continuous focus on outcomes, universities who are very cash strapped may start cutting humanities and creative courses.”

What else we’ve been reading

The Women’s World Cup, which kick off this week.
The Women’s World Cup, which kick off this week. Illustration: Guardian Design


Competitors in action during the 2022 Commonwealth Games in Birmingham, England.
Competitors in action during the 2022 Commonwealth Games in Birmingham, England. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

Commonwealth Games | The Australian state of Victoria has pulled out as the 2026 host, citing the cost. Daniel Andrews, the premier of Victoria, said he was not prepared to spend as much as A$7bn (£3bn) on “a 12-day sporting event” after projected costs blew out from A$2.6bn.

Athletics | Disabled athletes and sports fans are urging ministers to ensure that UK sporting venues have fully accessible toilets so they can enjoy sport in the same way as everybody else. At the moment fewer than 10% of venues have these facilities. The Paralympic athlete and campaigner Anne Wafula Strike (above) has written to the sports minister, Lucy Frazer, and the disability minister, Tom Pursglove, saying that current facilities are leading to “serious injustice” and are preventing disabled fans and athletes from enjoying sport.

Football | West Ham have had a loan offer for Harry Maguire dismissed by Manchester United and a £45m bid for João Palhinha turned away by Fulham. The club want to replace Declan Rice with two midfielders after selling him to Arsenal for £105m.

The front pages

Guardian front page, Tuesday 18 July 2023

“Clamour to approve drugs hailed as ‘turning point’ on Alzheimer’s” is the Guardian’s front-page print lead this morning. The Daily Express has “New drug is ‘turning point’ in dementia fight” while the Times says “‘New era’ for Alzheimer’s after drug slows decline” and the Daily Mail joins in to hail this “‘Turning point’ in fight against Alzheimer’s”. The i says “Breakthrough Alzheimer’s drug could be available on NHS by 2025”. “Just shove off” – the Metro splashes with a man grappling with some Just Stop Oil protesters. “Microsoft faces probe by Brussels for bundling Teams with Office software” – that’s the Financial Times while the Daily Telegraph goes with “Wallace: UK will pay for tanks but not troops” which is not about Ukraine, but about equipping Britain’s military. The Daily Mirror says “Tory trains scandal … Ticket office closures break law”. The Sun has a story about how TV presenter Melanie Skyes “self-identifies” as having Tourette syndrome.

Today in Focus

A woman looks at clothing on a rail

Could your clothes be making you sick?

Stain-resistant, wrinkle-proof, hard-wearing – modern clothing can cope with anything. But we know little about the chemicals that go into making it so impressive – or what they could be doing to our health

Cartoon of the day | Steve Bell

Steve Bell on Keir Starmer’s retention of the two-child benefit cap – cartoon

The Upside

A bit of good news to remind you that the world’s not all bad

Bethany Black.
Bethany Black. Photograph: Shirlaine Forrest

The world has often seemed like a cruel place in the past decade – but British comedy, at least, appears to have gotten a whole lot nicer. While the government has inflicted austerity on the country and Brexit has divided communities, David Stubbs writes that “British comedy at its best has become a haven of considerateness, diversity, multiculturalism, richer in its comedic detail and observation and truth to reality than ever before”.

He talks to the standup Bethany Black (above), who offers up her rules for comedy: “Make sure the jokes you’re doing aren’t adding to the horrible shittiness of the world. People confuse the subject and the object of a joke. The subject can be anything as long as the object of your joke isn’t using your power to make someone else feel shittier.”

Sign up here for a weekly roundup of The Upside, sent to you every Sunday

Bored at work?

And finally, the Guardian’s puzzles are here to keep you entertained throughout the day – with plenty more on the Guardian’s Puzzles app for iOS and Android. Until tomorrow.

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