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Normal People, 2020(TV still)

The government is cracking down on ‘low-value’ arts degrees

The changes will disproportionately impact working-class and BAME students

Today, Rishi Sunak has announced plans to cap the number of students doing “low-value” university degrees. Limits will be imposed on courses where a low proportion of graduates get a ‘professional’ job, study a postgraduate qualification, or start a business.

The policy, which will come into effect for the 2024/25 academic year, will restrict student applications in England for the first time since the government scrapped the previous numbers cap in 2015.

The government has spoken about cracking down on ‘Mickey Mouse degrees’ and ‘low-value’ courses for years now, without offering real clarity on which specific courses they’d target. It’s always been widely assumed that creative degrees would be in the firing line – and the news that courses where a low proportion of graduates get a ‘professional’ job, go on to study a postgraduate qualification, or start a business essentially confirms this. Unemployment rates are highest among creative arts graduates: 6.5 per cent are unemployed, compared to the average of 5.9 per cent.

Earning potential is also low among creative graduates. Research from the Institute for Fiscal Studies found that creative arts degrees cost the taxpayer 30 per cent more than engineering degrees, as arts graduates are less likely to pay back their student loan in full. As a result, arts graduates can cost the taxpayer up to £35,000 each, with degrees in subjects like music, drama, fine art and design studies proving the most costly.

In January 2022, a consultation was launched by the Office for Students (OfS) to look at the new “minimum acceptable” standards for degrees, in a bid to tackle “poor-quality” courses. For each undergraduate degree, universities are expected to have 80 per cent of students continuing into the second year of their course, 75 per cent completing their qualification, and 60 per cent going into “professional employment or further study” after graduation.

According to the Guardian, it’s “a measure which is most likely to hit working-class and Black, Asian and minority ethnic applicants”. The cap could also be very damaging in subjects or courses with substantial numbers of students from disadvantaged backgrounds, or disabled or mature students.

The numbers cap is unlikely to affect most courses offered by Russell Group universities, where students tend to go on to “highly skilled” jobs and earn above-average salaries.

The i reported last year that courses at around 26 universities were not meeting the new OfS standards. The University of Wolverhampton had the highest number of subjects judged to be low value according to the criteria, while London Metropolitan University and London South Bank University also both had three subject areas not meeting the thresholds in the data.

Professor Damien Page, deputy vice chancellor at Buckinghamshire New University, said any plan to introduce a cap on degrees based on professional achievements is based “on the fallacy that the graduate employment market is a meritocracy”.

He said: “Graduates from disadvantaged backgrounds, those who are mixed white and Black Caribbean, mature or disabled, are all less likely to achieve graduate outcomes because of the discrimination they face in the graduate jobs market. Instead of addressing inequalities in employment, this policy locates the problem within universities, especially those who seek to widen participation and achieve real social mobility.”