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What next for England’s troubled universities?

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Over the last 30 years, our universities have engaged in a radical experiment in growth. In 1990 there were 46 universities in the UK educating about 350,000 students. Now there are at least 130, accommodating more than two million.

Each era has generated a different answer to the old question of what universities are for. We have gone from requiring them to be seats of divinity, to cradles of the Enlightenment, to brains of the industrial society, to engines of social mobility. If you were to listen to the current terms of that debate, however, you could be forgiven for thinking that the prosaic answer our own decade has arrived at is this: above all, we want universities to be value for money.

The crises of funding that were the result of the ambitious rise in student numbers have had a range of effects. The sudden shift of the burden from the taxpayer to student debt was designed to be linked to a drive for a sliding scale of provision – with elite institutions charging the maximum for highly resourced courses at one end, to younger universities and less-subscribed courses setting fees at a lower level.

In a spectacular example of naive policy, and in the absence of a cap on student numbers, every degree course in England and Wales now costs students £9,250 a year (or 9p in each pound of earnings over £21,000 for 30 years, when the debt is cancelled).

Yasmin Ibrahim, president of the students’ union at Liverpool John Moores University, graduated in psychology in the summer, was among the first students faced with a £9,000-a-year charge. Her older siblings had to pay a third of that. Did she feel she got value for money? “To be honest,” she says. “I didn’t feel I got my £27,000 worth.”

To thrive, British universities have been encouraged to use a precarious growth model, leveraging greater investment through increasing student numbers and increasing fees, and hoping a natural limit is never reached.

The government has argued that the cost of going to university is justified by higher graduate earnings. But dramatic increases in the number of young people studying has led to fears that the value of a degree is falling.

Andreas Schleicher, the education and skills director of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, warned this month that earnings for UK graduates did not provide as good a return on their investment in their education as elsewhere.

There is an alternative to three-year full-time study at a University in order to gain an honours degree at a cost of circa £28,000 for tuition fees alone. Qualifi’s Higher Education Level 4 and Level 5 Ofqual regulated qualifications which are Student Loan Company, Advanced Learner Loan recognised, enable students to access value for money HE. Furthermore, final year top-up honours degree options are available via Qualifi partner universities or, learners can progress directly from Level 5 to our Level 7 qualifications and then on to the final year masters degree top-up programmes. The Qualifi vocationally related qualification pathway, with Top Up to degree/masters, challenges the statement by Andreas Schleicher i.e. Qualifi provides access to university degree and masters programmes that do represent good value for money, as long as the learner chooses their HE pathway carefully.