A recent government consultation aims to lay out a new future for the higher education sector by clamping down on ‘low-value’ courses and reducing outstanding loans, but will this inadvertently spell trouble for arts degrees?
The higher education sector is a thriving economy that saw 37.9 percent of the entire UK 18 year old population attend university in 2021.
The removal of the student recruitment cap in 2016 has prompted many universities to add courses to their portfolio in order to attract a wider range of students and increase their revenue.
As a result, institutions have moved away from subject specialism to offer a full range of degrees from business to zoology.
While this seems a positive development, the cost to students remains the same, regardless of the career opportunities their degrees provide after university. In 2016, only four out of 115 universities set their fees at less than £9000, which rose to £9250 in 2017.
In response, the government recently concluded two consultations to ‘improve outcomes, access and value for money’. It aims to tackle the £161 billion in outstanding student loans for ‘low-quality’ courses that supposedly don’t benefit the student in the long run. Courses identified could see their funding capped.
However, what’s left open for question is how a ‘low-quality’ course is defined and who makes that decision.
Many graduates may recall being asked to complete a graduate outcomes survey at various stages after leaving university. What’s less well known is that the outcome of this survey is a major factor in informing the value of degrees and university league table rankings.
Graduate outcomes are measured by gauging the level of employment of students 15 months after their graduation. Those in professional, highly paid jobs create high scores for their course on the graduate outcomes survey which, in turn, ranks the course highly on the league tables.
This black and white analysis of ‘value’ creates a potentially concerning future for the arts. Many careers in the arts, by nature, are not classified as professional. This includes textiles, printing and personal service occupations in art-based fields. Not only does it cast a shadow over the future of creative subjects, many humanities courses are also at risk. The Office for Students highlighted social policy and anthropology as vulnerable subjects because of their low graduate outcomes results, as determined by a limited measurement model.
It is possible that assessments based on a binary evaluation of course outcomes could see many of these courses lose their funding.
The potential loss of a wide spectrum of creative degrees leaves open the possibility of huge knowledge gaps in valuable sectors of work. Many industries could miss out on important skills and diversity of thinking that comes from the creativity, analysis and critical thinking required in many of these courses.
At a time when society is heralding the benefits of a broad workforce, it feels like a concerning and retrograde step.
Helen Barker is a senior account executive at Camargue