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Background: Post-18 education and funding review

In February 2018, the then-Prime Minister, Theresa May, announced a wide-ranging review of post-18 education and funding. The review aimed to create a joined-up post-18 education system, which would facilitate life-long learning, increase value for money, and break down “false boundaries” between further and higher education.

An independent panel report, generally referred to as the Augar report, was published as part of the review in May 2019. It made 53 recommendations on the future structure and funding of post-18 education.

The government concluded the review in February 2022, saying a “fairer and more sustainable system” was needed for students, institutions, and taxpayers. It launched a consultation on some of the independent panel’s recommendations and said it’s proposals for reform were intended to improve quality and standards.

In July 2023, the government published the outcome of its higher education reform consultation, making some minor announcements on recruitment limits for underperforming courses and fee limits for some foundation year courses. It also ruled out minimum eligibility requirements for accessing student finance and changing fee caps for level 4 and 5 courses.

The reforms were debated in the House of Commons on 17 July 2023.

Student number controls

The government believes the current situation of nearly all higher education providers adopting the maximum fee limit, combined with no student number controls for most courses, has incentivised providers to expand student numbers on courses that are less expensive to teach, but which may only provide limited benefits to graduates and the wider economy.

Following a consultation on whether to introduce sector-wide controls on student numbers in England in order to prevent “the growth of low quality provision”, the government announced it would instead issue statutory guidance for the Office for Students (the higher education regulator in England) to consider “recruitment limits” for courses that are not delivering positive outcomes for students.

Imposing recruitment limits on providers is something the OfS can already do, and the government’s plans concern the OfS’ existing powers and regulatory framework. This includes the “B3 condition of registration” on student outcomes (PDF), which covers rates on continuation from one year to the next, course completion, and progression following graduation. More information on the B3 measures is available in the full briefing.

Any recruitment limits would not be applied to a course without a prior investigation, and providers will have opportunities to set out contextual information for why a course might not be delivering the student outcomes required by the B3 condition.

The government has also said it will ask the OfS to consider how it can incorporate graduate earnings into its regulatory regime.

Foundation year fee and loan limits

Foundation years are one-year courses attached to degree programmes for students who do not have the prior attainment required to get a place on their chosen course. If a foundation year is associated with a full degree course eligible for student finance, students enrolling on the foundation year can access tuition fee and maintenance loans for the full duration of their extended course.

Foundation years can offer a route into university for students from under-represented backgrounds, mature students, and those who do not have the combination of A level subjects required for some courses, such as medicine and veterinary science. However, the independent panel report to the post-18 education and funding review questioned whether some foundation year courses, such as for business and administrative studies degrees, were always in the best interests of students.

The government has announced from the 2025/26 academic year, the maximum fee and loan limit for foundation years will be lowered to £5,760 for classroom-based subjects (humanities, business, and social sciences subjects). The maximum fee and loan limits of £9,250 will remain for all other subjects.

Other consultation proposals

As part of its consultation on higher education reforms, the government also proposed introducing minimum eligibility requirements for accessing student finance for undergraduate degrees (for example, a grade 4/C in GCSE English and Maths). It has said it has no plans to proceed with any such requirements but, “if the sector does not act to drive out low quality provision and improve student outcomes then the government will consider all levers available to us”.

Other consultation questions covered plans for a new national scholarship scheme and how to grow the provision of high-quality level 4 and 5 courses. The government’s consultation response revealed no more details on a scholarship scheme but said it was not planning to change the maximum fee limits for level 4 and 5 courses from £9,250 “at this time”.


Much of the reaction to the government’s announcement focussed on the issue of student number controls, with media reporting reflecting the language used in the Department of Education’s press release of a “crackdown on rip-off university degrees”. Labour and the Liberal Democrats criticised the government’s priorities, with the former also characterising the plans as an attack on the aspirations of young people and their families.

Concerns have been expressed about the possible impact recruitment limits and caps on some foundation year fees will have on social mobility. At the same time, some commentators argued the plans were more about appealing to the Conservative party base than any significant policy change.

The higher education sector has sought to make clear most courses exceed current quality measures and the Office for Students already has the power to restrict student numbers on underperforming courses. Several representative groups expressed dismay at the decision to cap fees for certain foundation year programmes saying it risked disadvantaging some student groups, removing personal choice, exacerbating existing skills shortages in key areas, and placing further pressure on the financial viability of universities.

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