Student number caps on ‘rip-off degrees’ overlook their potential benefits for social mobility


The government has promised to crack down on “rip-off degrees” in England. It will place a cap on student numbers for courses that deliver “poor outcomes” for students – because they have high drop-out rates or do not lead to well-paying jobs.

The intention of the government intervention is to ensure that students get appropriate value from their courses. It also intends to make sure taxpayers aren’t left to foot the bill when students don’t earn enough to repay all of their student loans.

But capping student numbers on these courses may well penalise students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

The courses which face capped numbers are likely to be ones offered by universities that are more accessible to students from disadvantaged backgrounds, who are more likely to attend less selective universities local to them. But less-selective universities – and the courses they offer – play a significant role in driving social mobility and supporting the local economy.

Educational charity the Sutton Trust has produced rankings that measure universities’ impact on social mobility, looking at the degree choices and earnings aged 30 of people born between 1985 and 1988.

Universities are ranked by comparing the proportion of disadvantaged students who attended with the proportion of those students who went on to achieve high earnings. This ranking places newer, less selective universities, such as the University of Westminster and the University of Greenwich, in the top five.

What’s more, research carried out by the Institute for Fiscal Studies, the Sutton Trust and the Department for Education looked at the social mobility impact of particular university courses.

Because the outcomes for particular universities or courses are affected by the characteristics of the students taking those courses – their academic ability, for instance – this research controlled for factors such as GCSE results. It found that courses that might be considered to have low outcomes actually contributed strongly to social mobility, because of the lower previous achievements of students taking those subjects.

Highly ranked institutions – such as Oxford, Cambridge and the most selective Russell Group universities – are generally less accessible to those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

These institutions admit higher proportions of students from more privileged backgrounds, who are more likely to have the social capital, financial resources and professional experience to help them both graduate from their course and go on to a well-paid job. This might be one reason for their very good performance on measures of quality such as those used in the regulatory framework.

Overall, a student from a low-income background is four times more likely to be socially mobile if they attend university.

Student outcomes

Universities are already regulated based on their student outcomes. In 2022, England’s university regulator, the Office for Students (OfS), introduced a new regulatory framework, which assesses how many students go on from their first to their second year, graduate, and go into a professional job or further study within 15 months.

The OfS publishes data on these student outcomes. It can intervene when universities do not meet minimum expectations, and has the power to impose a range of penalties. These range from additional monitoring or fines to de-registration as a provider of higher education. The cap on student numbers for particular courses now planned by the government is an additional penalty.

The government is moving quickly in introducing additional sanctions. There has been little time to assess whether the penalties introduced in 2022 have led to improvements in higher education.

The government’s own equality analysis on the proposed changes suggests that the context of the provider and the characteristics of its students will need to be taken into account when imposing number controls.

Going to university can be transformative for young people. It provides a window of opportunity that leads to employment, earnings and life success. What’s more, students enter universities with very different backgrounds, prior experiences and academic interests. They graduate with their own notions of success and with different ambitions for their lives and careers.

Despite the fact that the highest earners subsidise those who do not fully repay their student loans, we end up with a workforce that is rich and varied in background and skills and diverse in its make up. The value a degree course has to provide opportunity is perhaps its greatest benefit.

Author Bios: Matthew Aldrich is Associate Professor in Microeconomics and Helena Gillespie is Associate Pro Vice Chancellor for Student Inclusion and Professor of Learning and Teaching in Higher Education both at the University of East Anglia