The government is considering new plans to limit the number of students studying creative arts and other degrees with lower salary returns as part of its spending review negotiations, the Guardian has learned.
With outstanding student loans reaching £140bn last year, the Treasury is understood to be keen to reduce the number of students in England studying courses producing lower salaries and therefore less likely to pay back their loans.
Sources say the Department for Education’s (DfE) review of post-18 education, promised alongside the spending review, is considering ways to limit numbers. There is speculation that they could use new minimum A-level grade requirements to raise the entry bar for some courses and therefore reduce numbers, especially in newer universities.
One source close to the government said: “They would like to control numbers in specific subjects. The Treasury is particularly obsessed with negative return in creative arts subjects.”
The fresh speculation has drawn an angry response from national university bosses. Prof Steve West, the president of the vice-chancellors’ group Universities UK and vice-chancellor of the University of the West of England, said: “Trying to pick off any subject areas would be arbitrary and inevitably fuelled by prejudice.”
He warned: “It would be a brave and foolish government to tell today’s GCSE students that there will be fewer opportunities at university for them than their older brothers and sisters had.”
Anne Carlisle, the vice-chancellor of Falmouth University, which specialises in creative courses, said restricting numbers of students would lead to fewer people working in the creative industries: “How amazing that this government should think they could do workforce planning like this.”
She said: “I think part of the problem is that this particular government appears to have fewer members who really engage in cultural and creative events. It feels like creative disciplines have been collectively forgotten by a group of people who are now coming up with simplistic assumptions about their worth.”
The government should give up its “crude segmentation” of science and technology and arts and design, when in reality the disciplines work together to solve complex problems, she said.
In 2018, research by the Institute for Fiscal Studies funded by the DfE showed that male creative arts graduates earned less on average at the age of 29 than people with similar backgrounds who did not go to university at all.
Nick Hillman, the director of the Higher Education Policy Institute thinktank and a former special adviser to the government, said he opposed the idea of singling out particular subjects, warning that ministers would come to regret appearing “anti-intellectual and as if they only care about money”.
He added: “If ministers are worried that creative disciplines don’t have good earnings outcomes, put that information in the hands of young people, but don’t stand in their way if they are determined to be successful in those areas.”
Social mobility experts warn that if ministers decide to deny loans to students with lower grades at A-level, it would penalise students from poorer backgrounds.
Prof Graham Galbraith, the vice-chancellor of the University of Portsmouth, said: “There is a strong socioeconomic determinant to young people’s school achievements. If the government is to implement a minimum qualification rule, it must ensure that it is based on individuals’ capabilities and not a proxy for the school they happened to go to or the social class to which they belong.”
More than half of young people are now going into higher education and demand for degree courses is increasing each year. The UK is about to enter a 10-year explosion in the numbers of 18-year-olds in the population.
The government said in its interim response to the Augar review in January that “we are currently too skewed towards degrees above all else”, and before he was sacked the former education secretary Gavin Williamson derided “dead-end courses that leave people with nothing but debt”.
DataHE, a consultancy that advises universities on admissions, has calculated that if the government attempted to freeze university places at pre-pandemic 2019 levels, by 2030 about a third of young people who would currently go to university would be unable to do so.
Mark Corver, its founder, said: “If ministers limit numbers when demand is rising, young people in the future will have a significantly lower chance of going to university.”
Simon Marginson, professor of higher education at the University of Oxford, said no other country intended to put a ceiling on university expansion. “The evidence that there are unfilled opportunities for people without university degrees is not strong, and the politics make little sense. Families generally and rightly see graduates as better off than non-graduates.”
Hillman said: “The view that too many people go to university runs deep in the Tory party.” But he warned the government would not succeed in “levelling up” struggling parts of the country without universities. “Southend doesn’t just need to be made a city, it needs a university of its own too,” he said.
Prof John Cater, the vice-chancellor of Edge Hill University in Lancashire, questioned the government’s definitions of success. “We’ve actually got one of the most altruistic group of 18-year-olds I can remember, and I don’t think they are judging their life chances solely on what they will earn.”
Few in the sector are predicting a cut to £9,250 a year tuition fees in the spending review, although sources say the Treasury and DfE have debated this. But vice-chancellors believe it is likely the spending review will lower the repayment threshold for loans, with graduates starting to pay back their debt sooner.
A DfE spokesperson said it did not comment on “speculation” about the spending review. She said: “There are no plans to limit the growth of the higher education sector.”
But she added: “The government is committed to driving up standards across post-16 education ensuring everyone can gain the right skills to secure well-paid jobs that are critical to supporting the economy.”