New limits will be imposed on courses that have high dropout rates or a low proportion of graduates getting a professional job, the Tory government has said.
But Labour and the Lib Dems have accused Mr Sunak of an attack on “aspiration” by making it harder for disadvantaged pupils to go to university.
Under the plans, the Office for Students (OfS) will be asked to limit the student numbers on courses seen to fail to deliver good outcomes – including on future earnings potential.
Mr Sunak has said the key message of his policy to limit student numbers for certain degrees is that “you don’t have to go to university to succeed in life”.
Saying some people were let down, the PM added: “They’re being taken advantage of with low-quality courses that don’t lead to a job that it makes it worth it – leaves them financially worse-off.”
Education minister Robert Halfon said it was “absolutely not the case” that the policy was an an attack on arts and humanities courses. He refused to name any degrees that could be subject to recruitment limits when pressed repeatedly.
When it was put to him that the policy was “woolly”, the senior Tory told ITV’s Good Morning Britain: “It focuses on individual courses that have poor employment outcomes, that is not woolly at all.”
The OfS will not be given more powers to cap student numbers, Mr Halfon said. “We’re guiding the OfS to use the existing powers that it has to ensure that students who come out of university get good skills and get good jobs,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
The maximum fee that can be charged for classroom-based foundation year courses will also be reduced to £5,760 – down from £9,250 currently – under the measures.
The government said classroom-based foundation year courses – an additional year of study designed to help prepare students for degrees with specific entry requirements, such as business and medicine – are being encouraged in subjects where it is unnecessary.
Mr Sunak said the moves would stop young people being sold a “false dream” that left them on a “poor-quality course at the taxpayers’ expense” without the chance of getting a decent job.
“That is why we are taking action to crack down on rip-off university courses while boosting skills training and apprenticeships provision,” he said.
Education secretary Gillian Keegan vowed to “crack down” on higher education providers that “continue to offer poor quality courses and send a clear signal that we will not allow students to be sold a false promise”.
But Labour and the Lib Dems attacked the measures as a “cap on aspiration” that will restrict choice for young people.
Shadow education secretary Bridget Phillipson said: “This is simply an attack on the aspirations of young people and their families by a government that wants to reinforce the class ceiling, not smash it.”
She said the Tories’ “appalling record on apprenticeships means it can’t be trusted to deliver the overhaul that our young people need” – warning against “fresh barriers to opportunity in areas with fewer graduate jobs.”
Munira Wilson, the Liberal Democrats’ education spokesperson, said: “Universities don’t want this. It’s a cap on aspiration, making it harder for young people from disadvantaged backgrounds to go on to further study.”
She added: “Rishi Sunak is so out of ideas that he’s dug up a new version of a policy the Conservatives have announced and then unannounced twice over.”
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