The Relentless Focus on Graduate Employment Must Not Close the Door to Disadvantaged Students

James Flynn responds to new proposals to judge universities more strictly on graduate employment, and assesses the impact of this measure on the most marginalised in society.

The government and the university regulator, the Office for Students, has long been grappling with the concept of what constitutes a “high quality” degree. Last week, the Office for Students announced three new consultations, one of which attempts to address this exact question. The OfS has settled on this: Graduate employment.

The TL;DR of these proposals (and they run to over 150,000 words, so they are too long and technical for almost anyone without in-depth knowledge of the sector to read) is that universities are to be judged more strictly by the employment of their graduates - and particularly for the kind of jobs they have. A graduate must not simply be in a job, they must be in ‘graduate level’ professional employment.

Each kind of degree (based on many factors relating to the course) will have a set threshold at which graduate employment must reach - and these will be absolute thresholds with no leeway. For full-time students studying for a first degree, the OfS’s proposed thresholds are that 80 percent of students who enrol on a course should continue to a second year of study, 75 percent should complete their qualification and 60 percent should go into professional employment or further study.

I should note at this point that there is a wide range of contextual factors as to why a student may not complete their course - many of these are outside of the university’s control (such as caring responsibilities or a bereavement). There are also contextual factors relating to a graduate finding work, such as location (there are more graduate-level jobs in London than there are in Sunderland), or not having connections due to social background.

I should also note that, if the OfS notices an institution has a course (or courses) running below their thresholds, during the investigation they will take contextual factors into account. Nevertheless, if a course falls below the threshold, a university runs the risk of the Office for Students intervening with punishments ranging from a stern letter to a fine of up to £500,000.

Universities Minister Michelle Donelan, outlining the plans in the i newspaper, said the following:

"Students will be able to select their course knowing that, like the food in their fridge or the car on their driveway, their course has reached a minimum acceptable standard for quality and outcome."

Setting aside that this is an incredibly poor analogy (students have to work on their course, whereas when you buy a car you are not expected to do any work assembling it on arrival), the Minister’s justification for this is straightforward; the government see students as consumers, education as a product you buy, and that people who buy said product deserve certain quality from that product - up to and including a good chance of professional employment after graduation.

While nobody would disagree with the idea that students should be protected from poor quality teaching - particularly with fees of £9,250 a year - I want to focus on a perhaps unintended impact of these plans, and it concerns who gets to go to university.

University admissions have always been about how willing an institution is to take a risk on the applicant. This includes how likely they are to achieve the entry requirements, whether they are suitable for HE and therefore likely to go through all years of study, whether they are likely to graduate with a “good” honours degree, and then whether they are likely to go on and get a graduate-level job at the end of it all.

And though universities have long been judged on graduate employment outcomes (it has always been part of the OfS’ regulatory framework), many universities are willing to offer slightly relaxed entry requirements and take the risk on students from certain backgrounds if there are contextualising factors behind a student not quite making the grade (for example, caring responsibilities).

But under these stricter proposals; the imposition of hard baselines, the risk of fines, the suggestion that a course is ‘a Mickey Mouse degree’, or the university as a whole is ‘a bad university’ if employment rates aren’t quite as high as the arbitrary line in the sand set by the Office for Students, a university may not be so willing to take that chance. And that certainly makes me uncomfortable.

Because under these new expectations on graduate employment, universities will - either knowingly or unknowingly - have one eye on the likelihood of an applicant progressing through all years and into graduate employment. This will particularly be the case for institutions hovering just below (or just above) the thresholds, or those who primarily recruit less advantaged students and will now find themselves under greater scrutiny for not being able to reverse generations of structural and societal inequality over three years of university study. 

The uncomfortable truth is that the less wealthy an applicant is, the more caring responsibilities they have, whether they are male and from a white working-class background, or are LGBT (particularly T), the less likely they are to progress into graduate employment than those from more advantageous backgrounds, and the less likely they are to contribute positively against these metrics. Any social mobility-driven incentive to recruit students from disadvantaged backgrounds is therefore undermined by the potential punishments for not being able to change that overnight.

And though universities are also judged by the OfS on their proposals to widen access (IE get more applicants from disadvantaged groups through the door and then progress through to graduation), these new plans are also part of a wider programme to “stop the obsession about whether more or fewer people are going to university”, as Michelle Donelan explained to Conservative Home.

The government do of course have a reason to restrict those less likely to get graduate jobs from going to university. Reports that it is due to reduce the earnings threshold at which graduates repay their student loans are aimed at generating more money for the Treasury and reducing the cost of HE (more on that and what I think Labour’s response should be here). 

These new proposals would further achieve this by the back door - shutting the door to some applicants who are less likely to progress to graduate employment and less likely to make repayments, but devolving to universities the tough decisions over who gets to go. Some institutions may even have to stop providing certain kinds of degrees if it is unlikely to see improving graduate employment by the time these proposals are implemented (proposed for later this year), restricting the number of courses that can even be applied to.

But we know the hard decisions won’t be taken by the elite institutions - as when people suggest ‘there are too many students’ they never mean ‘there are too many students at Oxbridge. Those decisions will be taken by former Polytechnics who serve their local area, whose intakes tend to come from a more diverse range of backgrounds, and where graduate employment levels in certain subjects are more likely to be lower.

As WonkHE’s Jim Dickinson concluded in his article summing up the proposals, who gets to go to university, who doesn’t, and indeed where they are able to go to university, is ultimately one of the most political decisions anyone in the HE sector can make. These proposals (from a supposedly apolitical regulator) run the risk of reducing opportunities for disadvantaged students, those who benefit the most from the social mobility offered by achieving a degree.

And the fact they are presented in a lengthy, complex and impenetrable 150,000-word consultation document means that, sadly, precious few people will even read them - never mind providing meaningful feedback on the impact they will have.

James Flynn is a Policy Officer on the Young Fabians Education Network. He works as a Policy Analyst in the Higher Education sector. He tweets at @james_flynn.

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