Universities 'to be fined £500,000 for running "Mickey Mouse" degrees'

Universities could be fined up to £500,000 for running ‘Mickey Mouse’ courses in crackdown on degrees with low graduate employment rates

  • Office for Students will investigate universities for running poor quality courses
  • Watchdog will set ‘more challenging’ regulatory requirements on faculties
  • Failure to comply could lead to fines of up to £500,000 or de-registration
  • Student drop-out rates are high and graduate employment rates are falling 

Universities could be fined up to £500,000 for running poor quality courses under a planned crackdown of ‘Mickey Mouse’ degrees, the watchdog today warned.

The Office for Students (OfS) will investigate lazy university departments and faculties which fail to raise their teaching standards.

In an online paper, the watchdog says it will set ‘more challenging’ regulatory requirements at a time where graduate employment rates are low. 

The OfS is targeting so-called ‘Mickey Mouse’ degrees which lead to high levels of subject drop-outs and which do not help students find work after university. 

Degrees which have come under fire in the past as being useless include ‘surf science’ and ‘martial arts and adventure tourism’. 

But the consultation – which is taking place from today until January – could affect any degree which produces high drop-outs and low post-university employment. 

Universities will also be investigated if particular groups of students, particularly those from groups  underrepresented in higher education, progress to the end of their courses and on to graduate-level work or higher-level study.

It will enforce its crackdown through a range of sanctions, including fines of either up to £500,000 or two per cent of a university’s qualifying income. 

Universities could be fined up to £500,000 for running poor quality courses under a planned crackdown of ‘Mickey Mouse’ degrees, the watchdog today warned (file photo)

OfS chief executive Nicola Dandridge (right) said the proposals would allow the watchdog to punish universities for offering poor quality courses. Universities Minister Michelle Donelan (left) said the Department for Education is ‘pleased’ about the OfS’ planned consultation

The regulator could also suspend or de-register universities from its list, which would affect students’ ability to access loans from the Student Loans Company and essentially strip universities of their funding.  

It comes after vice chancellors yesterday vowed to hold institutions which provide ‘low value or low quality courses’ to account.

OfS chief executive Nicola Dandridge said: ‘Our plans would allow the OfS to continue to investigate any concerns we have about quality and standards. 

‘We will be able to use our full range of powers if we consider that any of our registration conditions are breached.’

She said the OfS is ‘determined to stamp out any pockets of low quality’ and insisted that the proposals ‘would enable use to monitor quality at a subject level’. 

Mrs Dandridge added that the watchdog does not believe that ‘expectations’ should be ‘lowered’ for students from ‘disadvantaged backgrounds’.   

‘We recognise the ongoing impact of coronavirus on universities, colleges and higher education providers, and of course on students,’ she said.

‘We have been clear that we expect good quality teaching and clear information for students about course changes to continue throughout the pandemic. 

‘We will draw on our experience of regulating through the pandemic in our future regulation of quality and standards.

‘Universities and other higher education providers offering high quality higher education across the board will find that our proposed approach to quality places minimal regulatory burden on them.’ 

The OfS replaced the Higher Education Funding Council for England in 2018 as the main source of income shifted from governments to students. 

The OfS believes the provision of high-quality courses will lead to fewer drop-outs, higher employment rates and more graduates going onto further study (file photo) 

Universities are partly coming under pressure amid claims that tutors were themselves pressured to give students inflated marks.

The OfS has previously warned that faculty staff may have been instructed to deliver ‘value for money’ by their bosses.    

The percentage of firsts and 2:1 degrees awarded rose from 67 per cent in 2010-11 to 78 per cent in 2016-17, while firsts alone leapt from 16 to 27 per cent. 

Responding to the proposals, Universities Minister Michelle Donelan told MailOnline: ‘We want all university students, regardless of their background, to benefit from high quality, world-leading higher education. 

‘Our manifesto promised to explore ways to tackle low quality courses, and we continue to support the Office for students on this.

‘I am pleased that the OfS aims to raise the bar on quality and standards. We must have robust regulation of our higher education system, which includes strong action if standards slip and principles which protect students’ interests.’

Yesterday Universities UK vowed to draw up a charter to monitor and review ‘low quality’ courses, dubbed ‘Mickey Mouse’ degrees.   

In the longer term, universities will also consider options for external assurance or independent review to make their processes stronger as part of an ongoing charter.

Professor Julia Buckingham, President of Universities UK and Chair of the advisory group said: ‘The overwhelming majority of courses are high quality and offer good value for students, but we want to address concerns that some could deliver more for students, taxpayers, and employers.

‘The development of this charter will help universities take consistent and more transparent approaches in tackling low quality or low value courses.’ 

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