Motion to Approve
My Lords, during the passage of the then Higher Education and Research Bill two years ago this month, I noted that, following our call for evidence, the Government were considering how best to support accelerated degrees. During those two years, we have conducted a detailed assessment of the literature review of global accelerated degree provision, published a consultation on our proposed fee changes, evaluated the detailed and quite varied responses and published the Government’s response to the consultation late last November. I am therefore delighted to bring these regulations before you today.
The regulations should be read alongside the wider fee limits regulations, which set tuition fee limits for standard degree courses from August 2019, and which were approved by Parliament last summer. The Higher Education and Research Act 2017—known as HERA—enabled regulations to set different fee limits specifically for accelerated courses. The regulations before you today set out various fee limits in respect of accelerated degree courses starting from August 2019.
I believe we share the same fundamental aspirations for higher education in this country: it must remain autonomous; quality of provision must be safeguarded and strengthened; it must offer genuine benefits, including value for money, to students, graduates and, indeed, our wider society. These aspirations underpin the Government’s overall ambitions for diverse and flexible post-18 education, embodied in the wide range of measures set out in HERA, which were debated here in considerable depth. Those debates included the amendment enabling these very regulations, which was tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson of Balmacara. The Government’s ambitions are being further developed through the ongoing review of post-18 education and funding.
I want to pause a moment to set out the details of these regulations, and the impact they will have on higher education. For the first time, public universities will be able to set a higher annual fee specifically for accelerated degree courses. This will allow providers to charge up to a maximum of 1.2 times the equivalent annual fee cap for standard, non-accelerated courses which, as the House will be aware, currently comprise the vast majority of all undergraduate provision in this country. Without these regulations, accelerated degree providers can only charge for each year of accelerated tuition at the standard fee rate, regardless of the actual volume of teaching delivered in the year. For example, they can charge only 67%, or two years of fees, for delivering the same teaching modules and content that are delivered over three years with a standard degree. With these regulations, public universities will be able to secure up to 80% of the total standard degree fee income for each accelerated degree that they deliver.
It is worth noting that accelerated degree courses are already offered by a handful of public and private universities. This form of degree teaching offers clear and unique benefits to many. When surveyed by the Student Loans Company in summer 2018, accelerated degree undergraduates were emphatically positive, with 92% saying that they were glad they had chosen to study an accelerated rather than a standard degree. In their own words, students responding to the survey make it clear why they are glad. For example:
“It’s cheaper. Faster. Keeps you motivated throughout the process. Better understanding of summertime modules, due to class sizes being relatively small. Asking lecturers direct questions more often”.
“I feel like I’m not wasting time—the course still allows me time for volunteering and enjoying my hobbies, and also allows me to study—and it saves me a year”.
“It has not only meant I can get into a job quicker, but it means that the work is constantly challenging you. It is super exciting to work like that”.
“Saves money and minimises time at uni”—
“I am a mature student—a career changer—so this reduces loss of earnings”.
“Being older, saving a year of loans and time is a big deal to me”.
Providers who offer accelerated degrees concur with these positive comments. Accelerated students are highly focused on effective study. Accelerated teaching timetables are more flexible than the standard model, with year-round opportunities for research breaks.
In spite of these benefits, and the positive testimonies of accelerated degree students themselves, current provision of accelerated degrees is tiny. In part, this limited provision simply reflects the financial challenge of delivering the content of a three-year degree over two years, meaning that the university can only receive two-thirds of the income it would be entitled to, were it to deliver the same content over the conventional three years. This is the challenge that the regulations before the House today will squarely address.
I will outline some of the wider concerns raised by respondents to our consultation process. Some of these perhaps reflect assumptions and misunderstandings which are not borne out in practice. We have, however, given them all careful consideration. First, it is suggested that accelerated courses could create an inferior class of degree, with cheaper and lower-quality teaching staff who will have no time to research or maintain their own academic development. Our response to that is that, although accelerated degree providers have said that their timetables can be challenging to devise, the provider experience is that this challenge is manageable and—just about—affordable. Some staff value the more flexible timetable that enables them to take research leave or vacation breaks outside the traditional summer period. These providers also assert that, to be effective, accelerated degree teachers must be high-calibre—committed, focused, inspiring similarly ambitious students.
As required by HERA, the OfS has published the registration conditions to be met by registered providers in its regulatory framework. Those conditions include ones relating to the quality of, and standards applied to, the higher education on offer. These quality and standards conditions apply to all courses, including accelerated degrees. All are treated in the same way. The OfS is also required by HERA to assess whether registered HE providers, and bodies seeking registration, meet the published conditions on quality and standards. All of this will ensure that accelerated courses are held to identical quality standards and assurances as those of all higher education courses.
Another concern raised is that the student experience on an accelerated course will be inferior to the standard equivalent, for a range of reasons. Students need time to develop learning skills. Most will not be able to sustain the workload, and with intensive study they will miss the wider opportunities and experiences integral to student life, including the opportunity for part-time work. But the reality is that accelerated students generally study at the same weekly rate as their standard peers—not more hours in the week; simply more weeks in the year. Many accelerated students work part-time. Mature students find the weekly student timetable quite manageable compared with full-time employment.
It is true that some young people need more time to develop the academic skills necessary for graduation. But individuals, as this House knows, learn at different rates. Some students thrive on the more consistent pace of accelerated degree study. Some current providers of accelerated degrees interview applicants to ensure they understand the specific characteristics of these degrees, such as the need to maintain a steady pace of work. Universities considering accelerated provision may feel this is a mutually beneficial step, especially in the early stages when cohort sizes are critical in making the best use of available budgets.
Our proposals have also faced the challenge that there is no evidence of real demand for accelerated degrees. Although current accelerated provision is still barely visible—as I mentioned earlier—our findings actually contradict this: 73% of providers that responded to the 2016 call for evidence on accelerated degrees reported seeing a demand for accelerated courses from students or employers. There is also evidence of a lack of student awareness: 55% of non-accelerated current students surveyed by the SLC in 2018 had never even heard of accelerated degrees. Clearly, we have important work here to bring accelerated degrees fully into public awareness, especially for young people on the point of considering their higher education choices, and for the young mature individuals keen to improve their employable skills but unsure how they will ever find the time or money to do so.
Employers are starting to understand the potential of accelerated degrees. For example, the consultation response from the EEF—the manufacturers’ organisation—noted:
“Employers want to see more flexibility from the higher education sector and for higher education institutions to be more responsive to their needs. Accelerated degrees are one means of achieving this flexibility and responsiveness … A quicker, more flexible, pathway for employers to recruit engineering graduates is welcomed, therefore, manufacturers support the principle of accelerated degrees”.
I am confident that the positive experiences of current providers and students, and the potential benefits and optional nature of these measures, will substantively mitigate these concerns.
Perhaps the most important next step is for government to work closely to share the basic facts, the real challenges, but above all the unique benefits, of accelerated degrees. We will continue to develop wider communication strategies to raise awareness with students, providers, employers, schools, parents and the wider public. In particular, we want to ensure that accelerated courses are understood and included in the information given by careers advisers to their young students.
We are working with the SLC, the Office for Students and other bodies to ensure that accelerated degrees offered under these regulations are identified and recorded in HE data. We can then track their impact on enrolment, graduation and longer outcomes for accelerated degrees, compared with their standard equivalents—including for all protected characteristics. Statistics such as the invaluable LEO data take time to emerge, even for accelerated degrees. If these regulations are approved, we will conduct a three-year review to assess the immediate impact of higher annual fee caps on accelerated provision and uptake.
In spite of their benefits, accelerated degree courses are not for every student or every provider. They will not remedy every concern that exists in relation to higher education. Our job is to offer providers a real and lasting incentive to deliver more accelerated courses and to make every potential student aware of the pros and cons of all the possible higher education choices available to them, including accelerated degrees. We also need to be mindful that some individuals simply cannot or will not enrol on any degree course other than an accelerated one.
These regulations will create a genuine incentive for public degree providers who want to innovate and diversify further. We have a responsibility to do all we can to help many more future students have the widest possible range of learning opportunities after school. We want them to experience the many benefits of tertiary education, to help them realise their optimum potential. We need to support the resilience of our domestic industries by helping higher education to innovate in its provision, and deliver a highly-skilled, homegrown workforce, whose skills can flex and grow at a pace that will keep up with the speed of technological development. I see accelerated degrees becoming an essential part of making higher education more flexible and more accessible. I commend these regulations to the House. I beg to move.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for explaining these regulations and setting out the Government’s thinking on accelerated degrees. They were, as he said, the subject of much discussion during the passage of the Higher Education and Research Act. As he also said, currently the provision is tiny, and we wonder how much demand there will be for these degrees. How many universities do the Government anticipate will offer accelerated degrees? At the moment they are largely in the humanities; does he envisage their extension to science and engineering?
We know that the University of Buckingham has been at the forefront of two-year degrees, with considerable success and customer satisfaction. The Minister said that these have been evaluated and that the quality and academic rigour of the courses has already been looked at, but are they as robust as traditional three-year courses? I wonder how the international community will view them, given that many overseas universities have four-year courses and already express reservations about our three-year programmes, particularly in disciplines such as engineering. Will our students be at a disadvantage in that respect?
Given the concerns we have long expressed about the dire decline in adult and part-time education, will accelerated degrees do anything to stem that tide? What research has been done regarding mature students and those from deprived backgrounds and lower socioeconomic groups? The fee rates in the regulations would not seem encouraging to those of limited means. Also, students who have taken accelerated degrees are not always recognised by the student loans system as studying during the summer, which leaves them short on their maintenance loan funding. Again, that would not seem to be an incentive to those of limited means.
We recognise the need for more flexibility in the system, given the growth in online learning, although sadly, that has not been to the advantage of the Open University, which has seen a worrying drop in student numbers. Will these degrees present further competition, or do the Government anticipate a completely different student body from the OU’s?
The Minister mentioned the teaching staff; what consideration has been given to them? They are under pressure regarding research, which many have traditionally done during the long summer break. He mentioned that there are ways of juggling the timetable so they can do their research at different times, but what discussions have the Government had with university staff to assess how they feel about teaching programmes where there is little time off for non-teaching duties?
Paragraph 6(3) refers to the Erasmus year. Can the Minister give any reassurance that Erasmus will continue into the future? It is a great programme that has been of benefit to many students, who have learned about living life in another country. It will be of even greater value if we do leave the EU. Can the Minister update us on Erasmus, as it features in these regulations? I know we do not have any idea what is in the post-18 review, but is it likely to lead to the stable and sustainable HE funding that we would certainly hope for?
Accelerated degrees are probably here to stay, although probably not for large numbers of students, as the Minister has said. I look forward to hearing how the Government see them developing, and his answers to the concerns I have raised.
My Lords, I would like to focus on the two-year degree, of which I have considerable experience. I declare an interest as the chancellor of the University of Gibraltar, but more relevant to this discussion is my five years as vice-chancellor of the University of Buckingham in the 1990s. As everybody now knows, as an independent university it has pioneered the two-year degree over the last 43 years. Started, with inspiration, by the late Lord Beloff, it is run today under the determined and courageous leadership of vice-chancellor Sir Anthony Seldon, and by a very committed team.
When I look back on my own education, I feel particularly privileged that I had three years at Cambridge and one extra year at Oxford. When I became vice-chancellor of the University of Buckingham in 1992, I had an open mind about the value of the two-year degree. But, by the time I had finished, after five years, I was deeply impressed by the motivation of the students. Many of them, naturally, were mature students or overseas students, and both those groups benefit in particular from short courses of this type. I realised that it was possible after two years to reach the same standard of degree as after three years. One only has to look at the list of alumni of the University of Buckingham to see what they have achieved in life.
When I left, I was convinced that the two-year degree would expand rapidly elsewhere, but today, only 0.2% of all students are doing two-year degrees, and only a few universities have taken it up. When I think more fully about why this is the case, I realise that it is not surprising. Until the introduction of these regulations, there was no incentive for traditional universities to set up two-year degrees, which involve major adjustments in teaching commitments, research, the use of facilities and many other areas. Therefore, I fully support the objective of these regulations to establish fee structures that are an incentive for diversification and a wider range of choice.
I do, however, have reservations about whether the current fee structure will be sufficient to provide the parity of esteem that is needed between two-year degrees and other degrees. The facts are these. In a two-year degree, students pay one year less for accommodation and living costs and they start work or further study one year earlier. At Buckingham, they do this by having four terms a year, one of which, I should stress, is set aside for research for teachers. In the two years, they spend 80 weeks studying and 24 weeks on holiday—the traditional university degree involves 18 months’ holiday and the equivalent amount working—and they achieve the same standards.
What is the result of this for the University of Buckingham? According to the National Student Survey, it is near the top, and often at the top, for student satisfaction, and it is top in the Government’s teaching excellence framework. What is more—a point that the Minister made—it impresses employers because its students work hard to achieve their degrees, and many of them get very good jobs.
The general point I want to emphasise is this. We all know that there has been a serious decline in the number of not only part-time students but mature students. To my mind, the two-year degree is an extremely good opportunity for mature students to take up the challenge. My concern is with the fee structure and whether there is enough incentive for universities and providers to introduce these courses. Although the advantage is that the student will pay 20% less than for a three-year course, the university is therefore being asked to provide 50% more teaching each year for a fee that is 20% less than the total income from a three-year degree. Given the £11,100 cap being introduced in these regulations, Buckingham would need to reduce by 10% its current fees of £12,600 per annum for undergraduates.
It is therefore hard to make a business case for offering a two-year degree—other than for a few low-cost, high-demand subjects such as business law and accountancy—for engineering, science or certainly medicine. It is impossible for the University of Buckingham to go for the approved fee-cap status unless it reduces its overall standards. There are some sharp challenges here. I fear that some of the for-profit providers may well be able to adopt only the cheaper courses and that the proposal may, overall, undermine the general standard that Buckingham sets for two-year degrees.
I know that the Minister has been to the University of Buckingham among his many duties, but I ask him to reassure me and, I hope, others in the House that the regulations will be monitored and reviewed. I hope that not only will there be a review in three years, as provided for, but that the Government will carefully monitor progress and the effect the regulations are having once they are introduced. I want the Government to succeed in their objective, and the Minister to assure us that he and other Ministers are aware of the dangers of undermining the concept of a successful two-year degree—and that they will always monitor the situation carefully.
My Lords, I very much support the notion of accelerated degrees. Most of the criticisms that the noble Lord speaking on behalf of the Government went through do not stand much scrutiny. I accept his argument that the criticisms do not merit abandoning the idea of accelerated degrees. I also accept that the cost of providing them will be somewhat higher for universities than would be the case if they were simply teaching all their degrees on a normal three-year pattern—although I suspect that there may be some exaggeration of how much greater the costs will be. Imaginative universities will find ways in which to provide some of their courses in combination with students on three-year degrees, so they will not be taught entirely separately from those students.
However, my concern is different. While I accept that one has to incentivise universities—I heard the concern of the noble Lord, Lord Luce, that the additional funding may not be enough to do so, and there are of course very few such courses—my concern relates to the demand for them. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Garden of Frognal, that the demand is already small. It will be even smaller if we put the fees up. Surely the Government are aware that mature students are more debt averse than any other category of student. Most students who are likely to join these programmes will be mature students.
My view, as a former vice-chancellor and head of an institution that took many mature students, as well as being vice-chancellor of a conventional university, is that these degrees are unlikely to be suitable for most 18 to 22 year-olds, who will want to spend a little longer as undergraduates. They will benefit from doing so and from all the other things that one can do. Of course there will be mature students who want to go through faster and are able to do so. However, why put the fees up again when one knows that many people have decided not to become undergraduate students—or master’s students, for that matter—because the fees are so high and they do not want to take on the additional debt?
Why, for heaven’s sake, do the Government not consider an alternative, much more effective route of providing universities that are putting on these courses with some grant, paid directly by the Government, rather than simply loading up the cost of the course on to the graduate? Only then will demand for the programmes be maintained. The Government need to think again about the fee aspect of these regulations.
My Lords, I very much welcome the proposals brought to us today by the Minister. I am sure that he is right that this adds an extra element to the options available to prospective students, and it certainly therefore brings more diversity into the system. I should draw noble Lords’ attention to my interests as set out in the register as Chancellor of the University of Leicester, an adviser to 2U and a visiting professor at King’s College, London.
I am sure that the Minister was right that there will be some mature students—I was fascinated by what the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, just said—for whom the prospect of studying so briskly in two years will make this an attractive option. However, for many 18 year-olds, the prospect of three years away from home studying a course at that length will remain very attractive. In fact, I would be so bold as to make a modest bet with the Minister or anyone else who will take me on that in the coming years the increase in the number of students studying for four years will be greater than the increase in the number of students studying for two years.
Believe it or not, quite a lot of students enjoy being at university. The Minister quoted a student as saying that the advantage of this would be that it would minimise the time at university. There may be some students who think like that but, in my experience, many students enjoy their three years, and the biggest single surge in demand in higher education at the moment is for master’s degrees—adding an extra year to the time at university. So if we look at where the growth in higher education is coming from, I think we are very likely to see it in master’s degrees rather than in two-year courses.
I have two questions for the Minister. First, for those of a suspicious cast of mind, when we see that this full degree is to be delivered for a total fee cost of £22, 000 over two years, we wonder what would happen if £22,000 were divided by three and became a new fee total for a three-year course—something slightly over £7,000. Can the Minister assure us that it would be a serious mistake for us to worry about such calculations? Will he assure us that he will take to heart the very interesting intervention from the noble Lord, Lord Luce, who made a point about the costs that an exceptionally efficient and well-respected university, the University of Buckingham, encountered? The argument was that £11,000 times two was insufficient resource for the University of Buckingham, so we can presume that any such reduction in fees would not provide the resource that even an efficient and well-regarded university such as Buckingham would require in order to educate its students.
As we are straying into this territory, will the Minister say whether there is any information that he can share with noble Lords about the current likely timetable for the publication of the Augar review?
My Lords, I must be forgiven, but I have some misgivings about the way the noble Viscount, Lord Younger, rather glossed over the possible disadvantages of an accelerated degree. I shall speak very briefly about this. I am an employee of a Russell group university which has a minimum three-year course. Some courses are longer. One of our great difficulties, particularly with scientists, is to understand and recognise that, increasingly from the age of 15, young people are learning more and more about less and less. Knowledge is expanding exponentially, and there is a huge amount of extra learning involved. One of the problems for our society is that increasingly we have become so specialised that we forget many of the societal values, the ethical issues and the other problems that a graduate has to recognise. Universities are not just about learning to do a job better; they are also about learning more about our humanity and what makes us human.
When I was at university, I did not learn how to become a doctor—in fact, it would have been useless to try to become a doctor from my course—and I did not learn anything about molecular biology, but I am now both a doctor and a scientist. I had time to read Chaucer and Thomas Hardy, for example. I looked at a whole range of things; I learned film as an art form. That makes a very big difference to a student’s general experience at university. For me, the point of being at university was to widen my horizons, not to narrow them.
Therefore, when the Minister comes to measure the impact of these accelerated courses, which I think he has somewhat glossed over, how does he intend to ensure that the kind of metrics that we apply are not based simply on results or the number of people in employment, but also on how these students, when they graduate, see themselves as part of society so that they act in an effective way to support society; they actually understand how to communicate with people and they understand the ethics of what they are doing, whether they are in the humanities or the sciences? It seems to be something that is easily forgotten as we learn more and more about less and less.
My Lords, we welcome the development of accelerated degrees but, of course, academic integrity and excellence has to be the hallmark of any degree, and it certainly must be the same for accelerated degrees. I was interested in the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Willetts, and his bet. More and more young people who go to university realise that getting a degree is good, but they think that if they want to do that particular job they have to get a first. Now they are saying that if they want to get that job, it is not just about getting a first: it is about getting a master’s, a distinction definitely and maybe a merit. I see a pattern that students might well go and do three years at university: two years doing their accelerated degree and a year doing the master’s. It would be a three-year package to get their first degree and a master’s.
I have always been slightly bemused about the student experience that we have heard about. Students usually finish at the beginning of June and go back in mid-September. Many students would want to carry on with that sort of student experience and do all the things that being a student implies. It is not just about academic work and rigour: it is about socialising, discovering yourself and so on. That will continue and long may it continue.
I have two concerns that other noble Lords have mentioned. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Luce, that accelerated degrees tend to be limited to certain subjects, particularly business studies and languages. We need to hear from the Minister how we can ensure that universities are properly funded so that they are able to offer courses for the subjects that he mentioned, such as engineering or the sciences, to increase student choice.
My second concern, which a number of people have mentioned, is the whole business of mature students. We see a decline in their numbers and a decline in the number of people doing Open University courses. What does the Minister have to say about this, because the finances do not really work for mature students and we need to ensure that they have those opportunities? I heard the suggestion made by the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone. I am not convinced that the Government would actually do that, but we need to be inventive to ensure that those mature students are actually returning to higher education.
My Lords, one matter that occurs to me in relation to accelerated degrees is the question of staff. I got the impression earlier in the debate that the staff for a quicker type of degree would be different from the staff dealing with the rest. That might be partly due to a difference in subject matter, but within the same subject, is the Minister suggesting that the staff teaching the accelerated degrees would be different from the staff dealing with ordinary, full-time degrees?
My Lords, I think it is fair to say that there is broad agreement on the urgent need to address the lack of flexibility in our higher education system. With the challenges facing us when we pull up the drawbridge on 29 March, not to mention the many unknowns around the world of work as automation gathers pace, our education system urgently needs to adapt, particularly the further and higher education sectors.
To some extent, the Government have acknowledged that, because over the past 18 months or so we have seen the publication of the Made Smarter Review, the industrial strategy, the Government Office for Science report Future of Skills & Lifelong Learning, the post-18 review, the careers strategy and the national retraining scheme, inter alia, which leads to something of a conundrum. With Philip Augar about to publish the review of his panel’s look at post-school education, why did the Government pre-empt that, as long ago as November, by publishing their proposals for accelerated degrees? Would it not have been better to await the Augar recommendations before announcing the accelerated degree proposals to fit in with the Government’s intentions thereafter?
The proposal for the increase in accelerated degrees serves little purpose in the great uncertainty that existing universities and providers face from the lack of knowledge of what the future holds in terms of our participation in Erasmus+ and the Horizon research programmes, plus the withdrawal of funding from the European Social Fund and European Regional Development Fund, from which many community-focused universities and providers have benefited.
Accelerated degrees received statutory underpinning in the Higher Education and Research Act. During the passage of that legislation, the Minister and I, together with many others, some of whom are here this evening, spent hour after hour discussing hundreds of amendments. It was the task with which we were engaged at this time two years ago, and I doubt that any of us would wish to turn the clock back to that particular period.
We support the concept of accelerated degrees but not in the form outlined in these regulations. Many universities already offer this form of study, but the new provisions will allow the two-year course funding system more flexibility to further encourage their uptake.
Many noble Lords have highlighted the fact that accelerated degrees tend to be limited to subjects such as business and languages. As others have done, I put it to the Minister that it is important that he sets out whether he intends to ensure that universities are properly funded so as to be able to offer higher course subjects such as engineering or the sciences to further increase student choice. I was taken by the suggestion from my noble friend Lady Blackstone that the Government should provide specific funding to universities to reduce the load on students wishing to study for an accelerated degree. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response to that.
The Government highlight as a benefit of these regulations that students who opt for a two-year degree will save at least 20% in total tuition costs compared with the costs of a standard three-year course. More accurately, I suggest, we are being asked to support a 20% hike in tuition fees, albeit for a two-year period of study, without any commensurate guarantee of an improvement or at least maintenance of quality of tuition and other provision from universities.
It is the details and the firm focus on increasing the maximum fee cap with which we disagree because we do not believe that, at this stage, it will bring the wider benefits to universities or, more importantly, to potential students that the Government claim it will. We are not alone in that view. For example, the chief executive of the Russell group said:
“Greater choice for students is always good but I would caution ministers against ‘overpromising’. The Government’s own projection for the likely take-up of these degrees is modest and we actually hear many students calling for four-year degrees, for example, to spend a year on a work placement or studying abroad”.
“Demand for accelerated degrees has been low for many years and is unlikely to increase significantly on account of these fee changes”.
There is little evidence of solid demand for this type of course.
The real casualties from the 2012 funding changes that led to the tripling of tuition fees have been part-time students in England, whose numbers have dropped by 59% in the last six years. Those who have been most deterred from study by that increase are not those aged 18 entering full-time higher education but older, especially disadvantaged, students. It is apparent that the biggest reason for the decline is the fees and funding policy in England because, as noble Lords will know, the average student debt in England has risen to £46,000. Even more alarmingly, the Institute for Fiscal Studies found that the removal of maintenance grants from students from low-income families meant that they were graduating with the highest debt levels, which in some cases are in excess of £57,000. Therefore, the trend in those potential applicants has been away from participation in higher education.
These regulations increase the higher amount to start a degree to £11,100 on an annual basis. It is not difficult to imagine the impact that will have on the ability or willingness of less well-off students, or potential students, to enrol for these courses. Of course we shall never know how many were unable or unwilling to meet the increased pro-rata figure.
The University and College Union has said that the new arrangements are not about increasing real choice for students, but could allow for-profit companies to access more public resources through the student loans system. That was a point that many noble Lords cautioned against during the various stages of the Higher Education and Research Act 2017 in your Lordships’ House and it is a strong possibility that we believe the Government should not ignore. However, I should say that it is at least open to speculation as to whether or not such an outcome would be anathema to the Government’s ambitions for the future direction of higher education.
The Explanatory Memorandum to these regulations lists the theoretical benefits for providers and students, but it also refers to the numerous concerns that have been expressed across the sector. It says:
“Students on existing accelerated degrees report a very high level of satisfaction, and highlight the opportunity to graduate and start or resume work a year sooner … together with costs savings and academic benefits”.
That ignores the fact that those degrees would be available only to students able to study all year round. That has major implications for access and participation for part-time students which, as I have already highlighted, are in freefall under this Government. Can the Minister explain how accelerated degrees will address the devastating fall in part-time higher education study?
There is another consideration about the wider benefits of student life beyond the degree itself—what the Minister called “the student experience” in his opening remarks. The University and College Union has stated that:
“Accelerated degrees result in reduced opportunities for students to engage in part-time employment over the course of their studies. This limitation is particularly acute for students from disadvantaged backgrounds who are more likely to need to seek employment in order to fund themselves through university”.
Would that students did not need to work part-time during their course, as was the case when noble Lords here today were studying. But we know that most do and perhaps that demonstrates that the accelerated degree proposals are focused not on those sorts of people, but in many cases on better-off or employer-funded applicants.
The lack of downtime—holiday time, if you like—factored into these degrees also means that they could prove difficult to student parents or those with caring responsibilities. Have the Government given due attention to such considerations? I hope the Minister might say something about that aspect of the regulations, because I suspect that the students he quoted, who enjoyed pursuing hobbies and other activities, were not encumbered by financial constraints.
The Open University says that there needs to be increased choice and flexibility for students to study at a time, pace, mode and place that they choose; we very much agree. One of the stated objectives of the 2012 funding reforms was to allow greater diversity of provision, including more short two-year courses and more part-time opportunities. With the reforms having failed to achieve that objective, it is vital to increase options. However, the Government have failed to address the crisis for the Open University and other adult learning providers. Accelerated degrees are just one form of flexibility and, as MillionPlus says, the Government have missed out on the opportunity to create,
“greater flexibility in fee structures and loan availability to enable students to access financial support for periods of study of less than a year (for example to borrow by modules rather than by year)”.
We agree with it when it concludes that:
“True flexibility…can only come when students are not penalised for studying part-time, or for shifting between full and part time study”.
Finally, it is clear that the Government have given little thought to the impact on staff workloads of accelerated degrees. There is no guarantee that existing university teachers will be willing or able to teach the new accelerated degrees as proposed. There is a risk that an increase in accelerated degrees will compromise time currently allocated by these teachers to research, as other noble Lords have said. Worse, it is likely to lead to the use of even more casualised teaching staff to deliver provision during the summer months. With threats to our existing world-class higher education institutions and research piling up from the uncertainties of an existence without the solidarity offered by membership of the European Union, that is not a chance that we should be taking.
What steps have the Government taken to alleviate the pressures on staff that these courses may create? Ministers should focus on not simply accelerated courses for a market driven by untested new providers but protecting the global strength and reputation of UK higher and further education.
We do not support these regulations in what they seek to achieve because we do not believe that they are equipped for that. When they were debated in another place two weeks ago, the Government carried the day when the Opposition put the regulations to a vote. We do not intend to do likewise in your Lordships’ House, but the concerns that I have outlined must be addressed if accelerated degree courses are to contribute meaningfully to the greater flexibility needed in higher education.
My Lords, I appreciate the broad support for these regulations, but I have also taken note of a good number of questions that have been raised this afternoon in the Chamber, which I regard as being extremely helpful.
As one lays regulations such as these, it is important to continue to listen. This will definitely feed into and impact on the monitoring and reviewing of what we have started today—and that helps to answer a question from the noble Lord, Lord Luce, who asked what we will do to be sure that we monitor these regulations and their rollout, effect and impact. I reassure the noble Lord that we will most certainly do that.
I will also say at the outset that I agree with the noble Lord about the inspirational leadership that has come from Sir Anthony Seldon, who has spoken a lot about accelerated degrees. Knowing him a bit, it is not all in favour. He has his own points to raise about it, but he has been a leading light, I think it is fair to say, in this particular respect, so I am delighted that we have reached this point today on the regulations, bearing in mind his input.
The noble Lord, Lord Willetts, mentioned the Augar review. To repeat what I have said before in the Chamber, there is no new news but the review will report in early 2019, as scheduled. Mr Augar will report at an interim stage. The Government will then consider and conclude its overall review—it is a government review—and accelerated degrees are being considered by this review. So, until the review is concluded, we will continue with the government aim to increase wider provision and access—but, of course, as the House would expect, I cannot pre-empt the review’s conclusions.
The noble Lord, Lord Winston, raised an interesting and much broader point. I listened carefully to what he said about the—if I may put it this way—human side of accelerated degrees and their participation in society, and also a focus on the measures for success, which I thought was very interesting. We of course agree about the importance of higher education in developing a student’s all-round character and we will certainly reflect on this point in considering how we review accelerated degrees. Accelerated degree students’ term-time so called “free time” is the same as that of standard students. Accelerated degree students do not consider their student experience and their capacity to mature as inferior to those of standard students. I say that at the outset because it is an interesting reflection on the subject that we are talking about today.
The noble Baroness, Lady Garden, raised an interesting question about international recognition and whether the Government had considered this. The QAA does not believe that accelerated degrees pose a specific issue in terms of international recognition. An accelerated degree comprises the same number of academic credits as a non-accelerated equivalent—but it is obviously another thing that we need to reflect on.
The noble Baroness, Lady Garden, also asked about assurances and an update on the future of Erasmus+. We welcome the proposal for the successor scheme and, as stated in the White Paper, we are,
“open to exploring participation in the successor scheme”.
Timing is dependent on the wider negotiations on the future UK-EU partnership, as she will be aware, and I am sure that other Ministers have said this in the past. In addition, an updated technical notice has been published by the DfE on GOV.UK which states the current position on no-deal preparations for Erasmus+. The department is working to agree with the European Commission what continued participation in the programme post exit could look like, but we have, so far, had no formal engagement or response from the Commission—that is where we are on that.
The noble Baroness, Lady Garden, also asked about the extension of accelerated courses beyond the humanities. I say to the House and to the noble Baroness that there is no reason why many courses other than humanities could not be accelerated. It would be for providers to consider the requirements of professional accreditation bodies. I go further to remind the House that the whole point of HERA was to allow universities and providers to have the autonomy to decide for themselves what might be best for their students, and to look at the demand and how they can best market the courses. As I said, it is early days, and we think, as the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, said, that there is the opportunity for some enlightened thinking in universities on these regulations.
The noble Lord, Lord Luce, raised the point that I alluded to slightly earlier on monitoring accelerated degrees. I want to go a little further by saying that we agree that it is vital to monitor and evaluate the impact of these reforms. We will conduct a review of accelerated degrees three years after these regulations come into effect. The consultation asked specifically whether accelerated degrees needed a higher standard of monitoring. Interestingly, the majority of respondents said, “No, let’s treat and monitor these degrees in the same way as all other degrees”.
My noble friend Lord Willetts asked about the £22,000 accelerated degree two-year fee and whether it would become the fee cap for three-year degrees. We have no intention of doing this. The annual fee caps depend on whether a course is standard or accelerated. Accelerated caps cannot be applied to a standard degree.
The noble Baroness, Lady Garden, raised the question whether the Student Loans Company will recognise accelerated degree students as requiring maintenance over the summer period, which should be the assumption for an accelerated degree. These regulations will allow all accelerated degrees to be recognised by the SLC, UCAS, the OfS and HESA. Long course loans cover maintenance for all longer degrees—that is, longer than 30 weeks per year—including accelerated degrees.
The noble Lord, Lord Luce, asked about the affordability to providers, including private providers, such as Buckingham, and public providers. Private, non-registered providers can continue to charge affordable fees. Registered providers currently can afford accelerated degrees in some areas. The regulations will provide even more funding. Providers might need to consider cross-subsidy, as they do currently with standard degrees, as the noble Lord will know. Cost savings from the third year of overheads, which has been confirmed by HEFCE, will be continued.
Quite a few other questions have been raised. I will look at Hansard and check what I have not answered, and I will certainly write a letter to all noble Lords.
My Lords, the Minister, as is his wont, has very courteously answered most of the questions put to him. I am feeling a bit miffed, because I put a question to him that he has not touched on. I argued that it is of course legitimate to incentivise universities to provide more of these courses, but there is more than one way of incentivising them. Why choose a route that disincentivises the students from taking these courses? Higher fees are likely to lead to mature students looking at the up-front fee and thinking, “I don’t want to do this programme”. Why not pay a government grant? You then avoid having to put the fees up. Fees are already very high and there is a huge amount of criticism out there, as the Minister is fully aware, of the size of fees and the amount already charged. This is an example of going yet higher. Could the Government come back to look at whether a government grant could be paid directly to universities, having considered carefully how much extra cost they are having to sustain, rather than laying it on the students to pay a higher fee? It is a simple question.
It is indeed, but I cannot give a simple answer to that one this afternoon; I can only say that I very much noted what the noble Baroness said about seeking grants. As I said earlier in response to a question from my noble friend Lord Willetts, I suspect this is a matter that Philip Augar will look at in his review. The bigger issue is whether it should be tuition fees, grants or a mixture of the two. I am not in a position to answer that question today.
However, I would like to go further, because the noble Baroness raised an interesting point about mature students. It might be helpful to say that we hope and envisage that mature students will look at these proposals seriously. Points have been raised about the cost involved for mature students. It depends on how you define “mature”, but I would imagine that it is those who have had several years in employment, who perhaps are not particularly comfortable in that employment and want to make a change, and a two-year degree at a total cost of £22,000 might just be within their scope. Some people might say that is quite expensive, but we think there could be some demand for that. The noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, raised the point that it would be more applicable to mature students, rather than younger students setting out from school. This may be the case, but as I said earlier, it is early days and I think we need to see how this is rolled out and how universities and providers grab the opportunity and market it. We then have to monitor it carefully, not just in three years but over the period up to three years, when we can have a proper review. I hope that helps, but I am not in a position to answer the noble Baroness’s first question.
Today’s debate will continue to inform and help us to meet the wider challenges of expanding higher education provision. It will also help raise awareness and understanding of accelerated degrees for providers, potential students, employers and the wider public. I commend these regulations to the House.
House adjourned at 5.51 pm.