Conservatives target ‘rip-off degree’ closures despite warnings

Commitments to spend more on research and proceed with lifelong learning entitlement also included in party’s general election manifesto

六月 11, 2024
Source: iStock/newsfocus1

University courses with the “worst outcomes” for students would be closed by a Conservative government to protect “the taxpayer from having to pay where the graduate can’t”, the party confirmed as it launched its manifesto.

Promises to increase spending on research and to go ahead with the lifelong learning entitlement (LLE) were also included in the 76-page document that Rishi Sunak hopes will revitalise his campaign to return to No 10.

The Conservative Party manifesto, however, stopped short of pledging any further changes to visa policy, which universities had feared would impact further on international student numbers, and it had nothing to say about the UK sector’s finances.

Plans to fund 100,000 more apprenticeships by curbing degree courses seen as low quality had been trailed long in advance of the manifesto launch, and the document provides little extra detail on the plan.

It proposes to change the law so that courses “that have excessive dropout rates or leave students worse off than had they not gone to university will be prevented from recruiting students by the universities regulator”.

This, the document adds, “will protect students from being mis-sold and the taxpayer from having to pay where the graduate can’t”.

Speaking at the launch of the manifesto at Silverstone racecourse in Northamptonshire, Mr Sunak once again took aim at “rip-off degrees” as he claimed that a split between technical and academic education had “held our country back”.

“We will give our young people the skills and opportunities they need to succeed in today’s world,” Mr Sunak said.

“We won’t cling to outdated ideas such as the belief that the only route to success is through university, so we will curb funding to rip-off degrees and use it to fund 100,000 new high-quality apprenticeships.”

The plans would cost the government £910 million a year, which would require 13 per cent of courses to be scrapped. When previously announced, the figures were questioned by the Institute for Fiscal Studies, which said the policy would be viable only if it resulted in a “one-for-one fall in the number of undergraduates”, whereas many students were likely to look elsewhere and take out a loan regardless.

The manifesto also said a Conservative government would “work with universities to ensure students get the contact hours they are promised and their exams get marked”.

It says a Tory government would deliver the LLE – which will offer students access to up to four years’ worth of loan funding to be used on a flexible basis – “from the 2025 academic year”, continuing work done by the current government that could transform the sector, but has been met with scepticism about its viability.

On research and development funding, the Conservatives pledged to increase public spending to £22 billion a year, up from the current £20 billion.

The document claims that 14 years of Conservative Party rule have “turned the UK into a science and innovation superpower”, with the “highest level of direct government funding and tax support for business research and development (R&D) of any country in the OECD”.

Discussing plans to limit legal migration, the manifesto highlights changes made to prevent most international students from bringing dependants with them when they study, which has led to a steep drop in most universities’ overseas enrolments.

It says the UK “will continue to attract the brightest and best students to study in our world-class institutions” and does not propose further changes to student or graduate visas.

An overall cap on immigration numbers to be decided annually by parliament is among the measures intended to further bring down migration, although the manifesto says this would be set only on work and family visas.

Carl Cullinane, director of research and policy at the social mobility charity Sutton Trust, said the manifesto was “relatively light when it comes to education, given the scale of the challenges facing the sector”.

“The ‘rip-off degrees’ ban fails to acknowledge that university remains the surest route to social mobility for many,” he added.

“Rather than restricting young people’s choices, the next government should focus on providing high-quality alternatives to higher education. Funding an extra 100,000 apprenticeships is therefore positive – we desperately need more high-quality apprenticeship opportunities to meet demand and build the skills the country needs. But there is no plan to ensure these are accessible to the young people who would most benefit from them.”



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