Students offered rating system for failing English universities

Institutions offering poor value for money face penalties under new strictures from higher education regulator

More than 60,000 students are estimated to be on courses which would fail to meet the UK regulator's minimum standards. Getty Images

Universities in England which fail to meet new minimum standards face penalties under proposals from the UK's higher education regulator to rank course quality.

In a consultation document published on Thursday, the Office for Students said more than 60,000 full-time and 150,000 part-time undergraduates were enrolled on courses which likely fall below its minimum standards. It said a value-for-money rating system would help local and international students judge if the institution is worth the fees charged.

Given UK tuition fees for domestic students have risen to £9,250 a year and annual fees for international students can touch £38,000, offering value for money has become steadily important.

The document lays out the numerical thresholds which universities must meet to avoid penalties.

As shown in the table, institutions where fewer than 80 per cent of first-year students studying for their first degree proceed to their second year will be punished. They will also be penalised if fewer than 75 per cent of students have completed their first degree over the past four years.

The sanctions available to the OfS will primarily be financial, either through the imposition of fines or restrictions on student loan availability.

The regulator's chief executive, Nicola Dandridge, called the plan "a landmark moment" in the battle against low educational standards.

“Many universities and colleges in England run high-quality courses that deliver positive outcomes for students. The thresholds that we have proposed will not affect them. They are instead designed to target those poor-quality courses and outcomes which are letting students down and don’t reflect students’ ambition and effort,” she said.

These underperformers are often found outside the traditional university sector in the private or alternative provision sectors.

It was revealed last week that the UK had suffered a drop in international students and the OfS will hope its beefed-up regulatory framework will incentivise a revival in their numbers.

“Our university system is acclaimed as world-class but there are too many pockets of poor quality," said Michelle Donelan, UK Universities Minister.

“Through this tough regulatory action, we are protecting students from being let down by these institutions, while also ensuring those delivering outstanding teaching are properly recognised.”

Further to numerical thresholds of minimum performance, the OfS intends to revive the teaching excellence framework awards for universities which exceed standards.

While the proposals will theoretically improve standards of existing courses, Universities UK encouraged the regulator to think more laterally and look at "how courses contribute to public services such as the NHS, to business creation and skills needs in local areas, and their contribution to cultural activity and the environment".

Updated: January 20, 2022, 2:10 PM