Media Release

Crackdown on “low-quality degrees” worthless without proper assessments

Politicians who criticise “low-quality” degree courses should develop a clearer way of assessing university courses, a new report says today.

The Social Market Foundation think-tank said ministers should be wary of only looking at the earnings of graduates as the definitive measure of “quality”.

A better and more comprehensive measurement would give students and parents more clarity on the value of higher education, although it would be more expensive the SMF said.

One option for improving the assessment of degree courses might be to move towards more external examining of results and even some standardisation of courses to ease comparison, the SMF suggested.

The Office for Students, which regulates the sector in England, this week launched a consultation on regulating quality and standards in higher education. The Conservative Party 2019 general election manifesto pledged to “tackle the problem of grade inflation and low quality courses” and some ministers have said some universities are “taking advantage” of students by offering substandard degrees.

The SMF, a non-partisan think-tank, said that the Government should do more to establish what “quality” in higher education means, potentially spending much more on assessments. Ofsted, the schools inspectorate, has a budget of around £130 million, whereas the Teaching Excellence Framework in HE costs around £3 million a year.

The report’s author, Aveek Bhattacharya, challenged ministers to make a clear choice on assessing the quality of university degrees: either define what the purpose of higher education is and invest more heavily in independent quality assessment, or trust universities to provide information about courses.

Quality-assurance in higher education in England is currently assessed across a number of bodies and metrics. This includes the TEF, carried out by the Office for Students (OfS), and the Quality Assurance Agency appointed by the OfS to safeguard standards. The TEF will not run in 2020 and the Department for Education has called for a “root and branch” review of the National Student Survey which underpins the framework.

Robust and comprehensive quality assessments cannot not be done on the cheap, the SMF cautioned in a briefing paper sponsored by GuildHE, a university body. The SMF paper calculates that the Government currently spends barely £2 per student in HE on quality assessment, compared to £15 per pupil on school inspections.

Reform or not, the SMF report said that the Government must recognise that indicators of “quality” like graduate earnings data, early career jobs or student satisfaction surveys are likely to be unsatisfactory due to statistical uncertainty and data lag. It often takes 5-10 years for the economic value of a degree to become apparent, the SMF said, during which time a course content and structure may have changed considerably.

The SMF proposed a four-point strategy for reforming and replacing existing higher education quality assessment measures:

  1. Determine what the Government thinks the purpose of higher education is and what exactly it is trying to evaluate;
  2. Identify the intended audience(s) and develop assessments appropriate to their needs and preferences
  3. Understand the limitations of quality assessment in evaluating higher education institutions and courses
  4. Decide how important it thinks quality assessment is, and invest

Aveek Bhattacharya, Chief Economist at the Social Market Foundation, said:

“Assessing the quality of higher education is anything but straightforward. It requires difficult and often controversial judgements about the purpose of our universities.

“Done well, quality assessments can help inform students and parents perhaps even lead to an improvement in university courses and value for money. But at present there is a sense that it is all being done on the cheap.

“The Government should recognise that it is unfair and inappropriate to judge universities on the basis of how much money their graduates earn. A better set of metrics would assess teaching quality more directly and cover some of the wider societal and non-financial benefits of a degree.”

Gordon McKenzie, Chief Executive of GuildHE, said:

“As a recognised representative body for UK HE, GuildHE has worked with QAA, UUK and others to address concerns about standards and unexplained grade inflation. It needs to be recognised that quality judgements can’t be reduced to a simple metric, especially when the jobs graduates get and the salaries they earn in their early careers are so dependent on other factors, such as class, race and gender.

“GuildHE institutions are committed to high quality teaching and an excellent student experience. We welcome the SMF report as an important contribution to a much needed debate.”


  • For media requests, please contact SMF Impact Officer, Linus Pardoe, or 07402 576995

About the report

  • The briefing paper, Elusive quality: how should we evaluate higher education?, is published today, 19th November, at 7am at
  • This research was sponsored by GuildHE. The SMF retains full editorial independence of this and all of its publications. The SMF is a registered charity and publicly declares all of its sources of funding.