Higher Education Policy

Current Debates and Recent Work

We have recently published our responses to the Department for Education’s consultation on higher education reform and to the Office for Student’s consultation on regulating course quality.

Our response focussed on the issue of Student Number Controls (SNCs), which we oppose.

We framed it largely around the wider economic impacts of reducing the number of graduates, and the consequences for individual students and less-well off areas of the country, as that was evidence we hoped government might listen to.

We argued against both SNCs in general and DfE consultation proposals to impose them by subject or institution, again linking to evidence.

Our response focussed on the proposed OfS use of employment outcome measures in regulating quality, and is also relevant to the issue of Student Number Controls.

OfS plans to use employability metrics from autumn 2022.  So university social science leaders will want to engage with the continuation, completion and employability evidence about each social science course within their own HEI. Our consultation response provides some useful evidence resources.

We responded to the announcement of cuts in Office for Development Assistance funded research (as well as the wider cuts in development spending). Our response highlighted the effect on the UK’s international reputation, since both the research projects and the student exchanges involved agreements with international agencies, and national and local governments.

And we pointed to social science projects – some involving collaboration with STEM scientists to address global warming, water security and so on, and others focussing on issues such as girls’ education, preparedness for pandemics, and international security arrangements – that would be put at risk. Our letter, co-signed by many of our Learned Society members, went to UKRI, government and parliamentary stakeholders.

Some of these projects (or parts of them) may since have received some funding by bilateral university/ UKRI arrangements.


Our response to the Office for Students’ consultation on Regulating Quality and Standards in Higher Education focused largely on the proposed graduate employability benchmarks. We asked if the purpose was to set minimal benchmarks to allow regulation of underperforming institutions (many of them private sector), or to set metrics relevant to the now abandoned subject-specific Teaching Excellence Framework rankings.

On the employability metrics, we pointed out that these were very indirect measures of quality, and needed to be set at a level that takes account of wider issues. Would universities be incentivised to admit fewer disadvantaged students? Are current measures of ‘graduate level jobs’ sufficiently accurate and do they take account of employers preferring graduates because of the skills they bring? Will they take account of area-based differences in employment prospects, and the comparative employment prospects of graduates versus non-graduates?

Our response to the ESRC’s consultation on its review of the PhD in social sciences raised various issues about the length and structure of provision, and how to ensure greater number and data skills for PhD students. We suggested that funding for four years (rather than three) would allow for more structured training and coursework, as is common in virtually all international comparators.

We believe that this could take innovative forms (such as funded part-time research assistantships). We highlighted evidence that, while UK social science PhD education had made progress in providing training in the use of data over recent years, it is still not as strong as it needs to be in some (though not all) disciplines. While ESRC-funded PhDs account for only about 10% of all PhDs, we believe it is important that ESRC sets a benchmark followed by as many social science students as possible.

Our ‘World of Talent’ reports give the facts about the international origins of many social science teaching and research staff in UK universities. They show data about staff’s international origin by discipline and where they are in the UK, using government HESA data. If the UK is to remain a global science ‘superpower’, it must be able to recruit the best and brightest in the social sciences.

For the future, we suggested a lower earnings level to take account of initial salaries for early career academics. We urged a more streamlined visa system; and we recommended the lifting of number caps for these posts.

While some of these recommendations were addressed by later government proposals, there remain differences in the rules for STEM versus non-STEM disciplines; visa processes are still cumbersome, and costs are high. We continue to engage with government stakeholders about these issues.

In 2018, we responded to the House of Commons Inquiry on Balance and Effectiveness of Research and Innovation Spending. The inquiry was addressing issues related to the formation of UKRI.

In our response, we called for more strategic emphasis on a number of issues, including more social science research on private sector R&D, how to improve productivity, how to improve skills for the future, regional institutions and development, and more integration of health and social science data.

Some of these issues have been addressed but others still need attention, as more recent debates over levelling up and COVID-19 research have shown.

In 2016, we worked during the passage of the Higher Education Research Act on issues related to the foundation of UKRI. Although this was some time ago, the arguments we made were important, especially since social science research is sometimes controversial.

In our briefing notes, we asked for: more protection and consultation about dual support; a legislative requirement for consultation with researchers about strategic research priorities; greater Research Council representation on UKRI’s Board; a wider definition of public benefit research; and greater statutory protection for mandatory consultation before any proposed changes to the remits or existence of particular research councils, who were giving up Royal Charter protections.

Some of these amendments were made, and we were pleased to see more protections for research councils put in place.

Community Resources

  • Post-18 review of education and funding: independent panel report

    Augar Review View