Universities must focus on value for money and improving access for disadvantaged students, MPs have said.

A report published by the Education Committee says there needs to be a sharper focus on graduate employment outcomes, the teaching of skills and supporting poorer students.

The committee calls on universities and the government to ensure better outcomes, expand degree apprenticeships and tackle the issue of excessive vice-chancellor pay.

Committee chairman Robert Halfon said: “We know our universities are among the best in the world and global leaders in teaching and research, but to maintain standards and to deliver for students it is vital we ask the question of whether our higher education system is fit for the 21st century.

“The blunt reality is that too many universities are not providing value for money and that students are not getting good outcomes from the degrees for which so many of them rack up debt.

“Too many institutions are neither meeting our skills needs nor providing the means for the disadvantaged to climb the ladder of opportunity.”

The report, published on Monday, suggests the “unjustifiably” excessive salaries of vice-chancellors have become the norm rather than the exception.

It also says they do not represent value for money for students or taxpayers, and calls for the Office for Students (OfS) to take a firmer stance on senior management remuneration and not be afraid to intervene.

The committee calls on the OfS to publish criteria on acceptable levels of pay that could be linked to average staff pay, performance and other measures.

In the report MPs say they are “deeply concerned” by the fall in part-time and mature learners.

They say universities must offer more flexible learning, including credit transfer, work placements and a move away from the traditional three-year undergraduate approach.

Research by the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) found that the raising of tuition fees in 2012 and the introduction of maintenance loans has led to students from the poorest backgrounds accruing debts over a three-year degree of £57,000.

The government should reinstate the means-tested system of loans and maintenance grants, the report says.

The MPs also call for institutions to be more transparent about the earning and career prospects of graduates.

The report further notes the potentially detrimental impact of unconditional offers on the interests of students, and calls for the OfS to clamp down on them.

This year in England, Wales and Northern Ireland 67,915 students received an unconditional offer, up from 2,985 in 2013.

On the matter of skills and apprenticeships, the committee said all institutions should offer degree apprenticeships which are crucial to boosting the country’s economy.

Mr Halfon added: “Our higher education system needs to have a much sharper focus on developing skills.

“This could make an important contribution to filling the nation’s skills gaps and solving the UK’s productivity puzzle.

“Russell Group universities, including Oxford and Cambridge, should rise to this challenge, up their game and rocket-boost degree apprenticeships.”

Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of the OfS, said: “We are already responding specifically to a number of areas highlighted in the report.

“We are preparing a new approach to significantly reduce gaps in access, success and progression for disadvantaged students. Through the Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes framework we promote excellent teaching and improve information for students including student employment outcomes.

“We strongly support the growth of degree apprenticeships. We are demonstrating this through the £8 million Degree Apprenticeship Development Fund and will draw on its evaluation to determine what further steps to take in 2019.”

She added: “We require universities and other registered providers to publish details of vice-chancellors’ pay and justify their pay package.

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“We also require them to publish the number of staff being paid more than £100,000, and ratios showing how the vice-chancellor’s pay compares to that of all other employees. This goes beyond previous requirements.”

A Department for Education spokesman said: “Our reforms have seen record rates of disadvantaged 18-year-olds attending our world-class universities and we want this to continue. That’s why we are pleased to see universities and further education colleges planning to spend more than £860 million on measures to improve access and outcomes for disadvantaged students.

“We know that what you study and where you study really matters, and we are introducing and developing digital tools that provide data on graduate outcomes that will begin to revolutionise how students choose the right university for them. We are also reviewing post-18 education and funding which will look at how we can ensure greater value for money for both students and taxpayers.

“We want to offer students more choice than ever before, which is why it is good news that over 100 universities are now on board and able to offer degree apprenticeships, including many Russell Group universities.

“This allows students to get a degree through an apprenticeship while earning a salary, training on the job, meaning they can bring their valuable skills to the workforce sooner than a traditional degree.”

Press Association

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