A higher bar for higher education: UK government bans "low-value degrees"

Westminster is keen to align the British education system more closely with the job market. But by doing so, it risks instrumentalising education.


Eden Grosz

12/8/20236 min read

The UK government has recently embarked on a significant educational reform that seeks to tackle the issue of "low value" degrees offered by universities. Aiming to enhance the overall quality of higher education and align academic programs with the demands of the job market, Westminster plans to introduce a cap on the number of students enrolling in such degrees. This move comes in response to concerns regarding the employability and relevance of certain academic courses, as well as rising student debt. As all of the UK's most promiment universities use a mix of both public and private funding, from a central government perspective the policy shift aims to make the sector leaner and more financially sustainble.

What is a “low value” degree?

A "low value" degree is generally understood as a course of study that fails to provide students with the necessary skills, knowledge, and qualifications required to secure gainful employment or contribute to the economy effectively. These degrees are often criticized for “lacking practicality and relevance,” leading to graduates struggling to find appropriate jobs or earning significantly lower salaries compared to their counterparts with more marketable qualifications.

Examples of low-value degrees might include certain humanities courses with limited job prospects, niche or outdated vocational programs, and other qualifications that are poorly aligned with the current needs of the job market. While traditional subjects like literature, history, and philosophy have their merits in developing critical thinking and a well-rounded education, concerns arise when no-name institutions fail to adapt their curricula to meet the changing demands of the economy and workforce.

What is the government’s solution?

As of the academic year 2024-2025, the administration of the student numbers cap in the UK will be under the authority of the higher education regulator for England. The Office for Students (OfS) currently assesses individual university courses using a range of metrics, such as pass rates, dropout rates, and the percentage of students who secure "graduate-level" or professional jobs. Under the proposed system, the OfS can penalize courses where less than 60% of graduates achieve positive outcomes like further study or professional work within 15 months of graduation. The B3 conditions also mandate that at least 80% of full-time students continue their studies and 75% complete their courses. Additionally, foundation year courses provided by universities, catering to students without course qualifications, especially those from disadvantaged or mature backgrounds, will be subject to new limits, including a fee cap of £6,000 to align them with the fees charged by further education colleges. These measures are aimed at encouraging universities to prioritize high-quality and relevant courses that equip graduates with the skills necessary for securing jobs and contributing to the nation's economic growth.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak's proposal to crackdown on English universities and regulate the enrollment in low-value degrees is a strategic move aimed at addressing several pressing concerns within the higher education system. By limiting the number of students admitted to certain courses deemed to offer lower value, the government seeks to drive a transformative shift towards a more job-relevant and economically impactful higher education landscape.

One of the primary goals of this proposal is to encourage universities to reassess their course offerings and prioritize programs that are more closely aligned with the demands of the labor market. The rapidly changing economy, technological advancements, and evolving job market necessitate a dynamic approach to education. By focusing on courses that equip graduates with the necessary skills and knowledge for securing jobs that contribute positively to the nation's economic growth, the government aims to bridge the gap between academic pursuits and practical employability.

Why the cap?

Setting a cap on the number of students allowed to enroll in specific low-value degree programs serves as a strong incentive for universities to invest in “high-quality” and “innovative” courses. This limitation encourages institutions to critically evaluate their existing curriculum and identify opportunities for improvement. Universities will be driven to develop courses that not only offer valuable theoretical knowledge but also incorporate hands-on experiences, work placements, and industry collaboration, thereby increasing the employability of their graduates.

In a competitive educational environment, the cap on low-value degrees fosters healthy competition among universities to design degrees with clear vocational outcomes. Institutions will be more motivated to conduct thorough market research to identify emerging trends and areas with skill shortages, tailoring their course offerings accordingly. This responsive approach will enable universities to produce graduates with skill sets that are directly applicable and valuable to employers, ultimately boosting the overall economic productivity of the nation.

Moreover, the proposal encourages universities to innovate and diversify their educational programs. Institutions may explore interdisciplinary approaches, promoting collaboration of ideas and skills across different fields. This can lead to the creation of unique courses that prepare graduates for jobs in emerging industries, such as renewable energy, artificial intelligence, and sustainable design. Consequently, proponents of this reform believe that students will have access to a wider array of opportunities, allowing them to pursue areas that align with their passions while contributing to the nation's economic growth in relevant sectors.

Broader questions remain around the instrumentalisation of education

However, the implementation of such a cap would require careful planning and consideration to ensure its success. To accurately identify low-value degrees, the government must establish clear and transparent criteria for evaluating the employability and economic relevance of various courses. This process would require robust data analysis, regular review, and collaboration with industry experts to keep track of labor market needs and changes. Additionally, the government should collaborate with universities to provide support and resources for course development and enhancement. Financial incentives and grants could be allocated to institutions that demonstrate a commitment to improving the quality of their programs and aligning them with labor market demands.

However, an important argument in this situation is that defining the value of a degree solely based on immediate employability might undermine the broader value of education. Certain disciplines, such as the arts, social sciences, and humanities—disciplines that have historically been overlooked by universities as well as the workforce--contribute to critical thinking, cultural enrichment, and societal development, even if they may not lead to direct vocational outcomes. Therefore, striking a balance between promoting vocational courses and preserving the diversity of academic pursuits is crucial for maintaining a well-rounded and holistic higher education system.

The cap: helpful or harmful?

The proposed cap on low-value degrees comes with potential benefits for both students and the nation's economy. By encouraging universities to focus on high-demand and high-quality courses, students can benefit from a more streamlined and relevant education that aligns with their career aspirations. This approach may also help to reduce graduate underemployment, a pressing issue in recent years, as students would be better equipped to enter the job market with sought-after skills.

Moreover, a stronger emphasis on practical and in-demand degrees could address skill shortages in critical sectors of the economy, boosting the country's productivity and competitiveness on the global stage. It would also mean a more cost-effective use of government funding for higher education, ensuring taxpayers' money is directed toward programs that provide tangible benefits to individuals and society.

However, the proposed cap has faced plenty of criticism. Some argue that measuring the value of a degree purely based on immediate employability oversimplifies the broader value of education, which includes personal growth, critical thinking, and cultural enrichment. There are concerns that limiting access to certain courses might deter students from pursuing their passions and interests, narrowing their educational options.

Furthermore, there are apprehensions about how the government will define and assess the value of degrees accurately. Designating certain programs as "low value" could inadvertently create a hierarchy of degrees, potentially stigmatizing certain disciplines and leading to a narrow focus on a few select fields.


The UK government's proposal to cap the number of students enrolling in "low value" degrees is a bold step towards improving the overall quality and relevance of higher education. By encouraging universities to prioritize programs that align with the demands of the job market, the government aims to equip students with the skills necessary to succeed in their chosen careers, while also addressing skill shortages in critical sectors of the economy. However, the implementation of such a cap requires careful consideration to strike a balance between employability and the broader value of education, ensuring that students have a diverse range of opportunities to pursue their passions and interests while contributing positively to the nation's economic growth.