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  • Writer's pictureLEI

Capping degrees: Existential threat or dead cat?

Updated: Jul 25, 2023

It is fair to say that Rishi Sunak’s latest intervention in education policy, to limit the number of degree subjects that don’t deliver well paid jobs for graduates, has not been well received by the higher education sector, especially among the post-92 institutions.

The most recent data for full-time undergraduate enrolments (2021/22) illustrates how post-92 universities continue to over provide for the most disadvantaged student cohorts in the most challenging labour markets, relative to other institutions.


% from State Schools

% on FSM




Russell Group






More generally, graduates from disadvantaged backgrounds are likely to earn less than their peers from more prosperous backgrounds, regardless of where they study. Cracking down on so-called ‘rip-off’ degrees would limit access and participation to higher education among certain cohorts.

It should not be the primary function of universities, or schools for that matter, to turn out labour market outcomes like widgets off a factory production line. But there is undoubtedly a relationship between human capital and productivity. Skills clearly matter. All learning is valuable, and raising the skill levels of the population is both desirable and necessary. But the financialisaton of higher education has flooded the market and devalued degrees in a qualifications arms race while simultaneously contributing to a widening skills gap between what education institutions provide and what employers say they need.

There is a view, although not universally accepted, that we are sending too many school leavers to university many of whom are studying degrees that won't directly contribute to economic growth. Significantly, the wage premium for graduates, outside London and STEM subjects, is falling. This is something that needs to be addressed with some urgency. Not least because the student finance system is unsustainable and with falling graduate wages, the state will increasingly need to pick up the slack on loan repayments.

So, there is clearly the need for an honest conversation about the role of higher education and how the UK might achieve a better match between the supply and demand for graduate level skills. We need greater synergy between education, skills and industrial strategy, especially at the local and regional level, where there are too few graduate level jobs. We need to incentivise take up in the areas where we want to grow the economy and to consolidate areas where we have comparative advantage.

"There is a need to join up the increasingly disparate parts of HE policy; to develop an industrial strategy and one which allows for HE input into the growth of higher-level skills which drive productivity. The local and regional context is important; not in terms of quality but in terms of the salary metric and the wider value of jobs in the foundational economy.”

Prof. Annabel Kiernan (Pro-Vice Chancellor Academic at Staffordshire University)

The Lifelong Education Commission - now Lifelong Education Institute - called for place-based tertiary models as a way of unifying education. Rather than the perennial battle for parity between FE and HE or the false dichotomy of technical/vocational routes and academic pathways such an approach could provide a single, integrated post-secondary system.

There is also a need to consider financial subsidies for fees and maintenance. Perhaps revisiting Philip Augar’s recommendation to charge different fee rates for different subjects (e.g. STEM and other courses central to ambitions for productivity and growth).

The main objection to Sunak’s proposal is the proposed metric. An assessment of salaries within 15 months of graduation is not the best way of measuring either quality or value. A coherent account of what students get out of their higher education experience is needed. The OfS already has the powers to intervene in this area. Factoring for the regional context, via educational gain and development of the ‘equality of opportunity risk register’ would represent a better starting point for such an undertaking.

“Vocational learning which directly provides the skills and qualifications required by industry is undoubtedly an important aspect of what Universities do, but alongside this, we can’t lose sight of the many other important dimensions of what the HE sector provides, and how well it provides learning and skills across a rich and diverse set of subjects, all of which have their own merit and value, regardless of post-degree employment or salary levels.”

Ashley Wheaton, Principal, University College of Estate Management

It is unlikely, given where we are in the political cycle, that the Prime Minister’s words will be come to anything during this parliament, if at all. In this sense the announcement may be nothing more than a dead cat tactic. But this type of thinking, should it gain traction, would be an existential threat to post-92 universities, that should be driving the solution to widening participation and lifelong learning.


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