The government has said that it is considering limiting the number of students studying creative arts and other degrees with lower salary returns as part of its spending review negotiations.
With outstanding student loans reaching £140bn last year, the Treasury is proposing cutting the number of students in England who are studying courses that are producing lower salaries and less likely to pay back their student loans.
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 added: “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.”
In 2018, research by the Institute for Fiscal Studies funded by the Department for Education 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”.
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.
More than half of young people are now going into higher education and demand for degree courses is increasing each year.
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”.
Meanwhile a handful of people 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. However, 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. Adding that there are no plans to limit the growth of the higher education sector.
“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.” they added.