Sunak Announces Clamp Down on ‘Rip-Off’ University Degrees

Sunak Announces Clamp Down on ‘Rip-Off’ University Degrees
File photo of graduates attending a graduation ceremony at a UK university, on July 16, 2008. (Chris Ison/PA Media)
Alexander Zhang

The number of students that can be accepted onto “poor quality” university degrees will be capped, Rishi Sunak has announced.

The move is intended to protect students and taxpayers against “rip-off degree courses” that have high drop-out rates, don’t lead to good jobs, and leave young people with poor pay and high debts, the government said in a statement on Monday.

Meanwhile, the maximum fee that can be charged for classroom-based foundation year courses will also be reduced to £5,760—down from £9,250 currently—under the measures.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak speaks during a press conference in Downing Street, London, on July 13, 2023. (Henry Nicholls/PA Media)
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak speaks during a press conference in Downing Street, London, on July 13, 2023. (Henry Nicholls/PA Media)

The prime minister said: “The UK is home to some of the best universities in the world and studying for a degree can be immensely rewarding. But too many young people are being sold a false dream and end up doing a poor-quality course at the taxpayers’ expense that doesn’t offer the prospect of a decent job at the end of it.

“That is why we are taking action to crack down on rip-off university courses, while boosting skills training and apprenticeships provision. This will help more young people to choose the path that is right to help them reach their potential and grow our economy.”

‘Low Value’

The announcement by Mr. Sunak and Education Secretary Gillian Keegan is part of the government’s response to the Augar review, established by former Prime Minister Theresa May back in 2017.

Among the report’s recommendations was an aim to reduce the number of “low value” courses leaving students with poor job prospects.

Nearly three in ten graduates do not progress into highly skilled jobs or further study 15 months after graduating, according to figures from the Office for Students (OfS), an independent regulator.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies also estimates that one in five graduates would be better off financially if they hadn’t gone to university.

The government said it wants to make the system “fairer for them, but also for taxpayers—who make a huge investment in higher education and are liable for billions of pounds in unrecovered tuition fees if graduate earnings are low.”

Under the plans, the OfS will be asked to limit the number of students universities can recruit to courses that are seen to fail to deliver good outcomes for graduates.

The government said it is reducing the maximum fee for foundation year courses, because “too many people are encouraged to take a foundation year in some subjects like business where it is not necessary.”

‘Value for Money’

The education secretary said: “Students and taxpayers rightly expect value for money and a good return on the significant financial investment they make in higher education.

“These new measures will crack down on higher education providers that continue to offer poor quality courses and send a clear signal that we will not allow students to be sold a false promise. Wherever they choose to study, it is vital students can gain the skills needed to get great jobs and succeed—supporting the prime minister’s priority to grow our economy.”

Philip Augar, chair of the independent Review of Post-18 Education and Funding, said: “This is another strong signal for universities to control such recruitment as is not in students’ best interests and I hope the sector responds constructively.”

But opposition parties attacked the measures as a “cap on aspiration” that will restrict choice for young people.

Labour’s shadow education secretary Bridget Phillipson 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.”

Munira Wilson, the Liberal Democrats’ education spokesperson, said: “Universities don’t want this. It’s a cap on aspiration, making it harder for young people from disadvantaged backgrounds to go on to further study.”

PA Media contributed to this report.