Shaping our sector
In late 2020, the Office for Students launched a consultation on the way it will measure and monitor quality and standards in higher education in the future. The consultation suggests this will increasingly be based on a pre-determined set of outcomes for students, and in particular how much they earn after graduating. The Cathedrals Group has responded to the consultation, highlighting concerns, issues and ideas that reflect our ethos as universities, and the things we know matter to our students.
Below we've listed ten things that we believe it is important to think about when considering quality and standards in higher education.
- Career salary isn't the main motivation for everyone going to university. Research conducted by Universities UK and ComRes in 2019, found 84% of students and recent graduates saying that future salary is not the only factor they considered when deciding to go to university. The same research found work/life balance to be a more important factor than salary in people’s career choices and that independence and confidence are the key skills people look to develop when choosing which university to go to. Students take a holistic view when choosing a university - any measure of what quailty means will benefit from reflecting that.
- Some universities focus on recruiting students from backgrounds that are underrepresented in higher education. They do this because in part because they think that giving more people the chance to benefit from higher education is a good thing for society. When they do this, they can add significant value to that person's prospects and confidence, but this may not be reflected immediately in their career. Measuring this 'added value' from people's time at university, feels just as important as measuring what people earn afterwards.
- Quality in higher education is already supported by the Quality Code - a set of standards that all universities have signed up to and work with. If we move away from this, or replace it with something else, then the overall standards that UK higher education are known for may be harder to identify and understand, especially for international applicants.
- The context a university and its students work in is really important. Some universites are in areas that have much lower employment levels, some courses have many more students on them than the same course somewhere else. These things have a big impact on the earnings and wider outcomes that universities and graduates experience. So this contextual information, alongside the data, is really important.
- When students come to university, they do so with a lifetime of history and experiences that will impact how they study, what they achieve and their motivations. Universities do amazing work to help people from different background to flourish - but can we really measure all universities, with their wide range of students the same way, as if everybody started at the same point? We don't think it is fair on the students, or universities to simplify things in that way.
- Not everybody chooses to go into a well paid job. Some of the most important and valuable roles in society - which benefit from practitioners having a degree - do not pay particularly well. Judging universities by what their graduates get paid implies that pay is an effective measure of what counts as a 'good' job. We know this isn't true, so we don't think universities should be measured mainly on this basis.
- Lots of students come to university for reasons other than increasing their salary. Perhaps to study something they love, or change the direction of their career. We shouldn't assume that salary is the right way to measure how well the university has performed for those people.
- We are concered that if universities are rewarwed and recognised primarily for helping people to graduate into higher salary roles, they might be deterred from giving opportunities to people whose prospects of achieving those high salaries are lower, or from offering courses that sometimes equate with lower earnings, but still play an important role in society. We think it is important to recognise that the mix of opportunities in UK higher education is a real strength.
- We think universities and local areas benefit from being able to take risks on new courses and different ways of doing things that offer fresh skills and ideas. If universities are only rewarded for delivering courses that they can be confident will equate with higher salaries, then these efforts to innovate are likely to be deterred in favour of safer options.
- As society recovers from the coronavirus pandemic, we think people need to come together and work towards common goals, focusing on how we can give more people the chance to reskill, reconnect with others and enhance their wellbeing. Universities have a vital role to play in this, but these latest proposals risk distracting from that work and pushing universities to pursue a much narrower set of objectives. We hope that doesn't happen.