The new chair of the UK’s House of Commons education committee wants to see 50 per cent of those going into higher education taking degree apprenticeships and has called for “a radical look at what university is for”, so funding incentivises the study of subjects that address the UK’s “skills deficits”.
Conservative MP Robert Halfon is potentially a highly influential figure for the sector, given his announcement in September that the committee’s opening inquiry under his chairmanship would be into “value for money in higher education”.
He spoke to Times Higher Education in his office at the Houses of Parliament, where the walls and bookshelves display some of his preoccupations and motivations. There are several books on free market, individualist thinker Ayn Rand; black and white pictures of Mr Halfon’s Essex constituency of Harlow before its rapid post-war growth into a working-class new town; and a poster depicting Mr Halfon’s treasured “education ladder of opportunity” vision.
“If you give people the skills, education and training they need, they get job security and prosperity for the future,” Mr Halfon said of that vision.
So, what evidence is there of a problem with value for money in English higher education? “My passion is social justice,” Mr Halfon said. “I welcome the fact that more disadvantaged people are going to university than ever before. But too many of them are not going to the redbrick universities, or Russell Group [universities]…Also too many graduates are going to universities and not coming out with highly skilled and well-paid jobs. The stats are beginning to show that.”
Mr Halfon continued: “The purpose of our committee of inquiry is to examine the evidence on this and to prove what I’m saying…not just me, but others [too].”
Mr Halfon, an ally of former chancellor George Osborne, was sacked as apprenticeships and skills minister by Theresa May in June. For some time, he has made waves with calls for the Conservatives to reconnect with working-class voters, including by changing their name to “the workers’ party” and using the ladder (representing opportunity) as a logo.
On higher education and employability, he said that there was a need for “a radical look at what university is for”. “There is a view out there, held by the University of Oxford vice-chancellor, that university is about experience,” he said.
That is a reference to Louise Richardson, who in her speech to this year’s THE World Academic Summit, criticised “absolutely extraordinary” comments by Mr Halfon about employability being the purpose of higher education and accused him of having “completely missed the point of going to university”.
Mr Halfon responded: “She [Professor Richardson] said that university is about the experience. To me, if someone wants an experience they can go to Alton Towers.”
While acknowledging that “university must be about intellectual development” – Mr Halfon referred to his time studying politics at the University of Exeter as “the best time of my life” – he reiterated his belief “that the whole purpose of going to university is to get a very highly skilled and better paid job”.
He lamented Britain’s performance on skills compared with international peers and said that it was failing to prepare for the “fourth industrial revolution” – potential developments in automation and artificial intelligence that some believe will transform the world of work.
“To me, the university system must be regeared,” said Mr Halfon. He continued: “I think the money, the incentives, should predominantly be to fill where we have deficits; whether it be healthcare, whether it be science – women in science and engineering particularly – whether it is computing and coding, robotics; wherever we have a skills deficit, whatever we need for the future.”
He suggested that this could be achieved via degree apprenticeships.
“This is not a target, but my dream is you would transform our skills base by having 50 per cent of people who go and do degrees that would be doing degree apprenticeships,” Mr Halfon said.
Alongside the education committee’s review, Ms May has pledged “major review of university funding”. Asked about the Conservative position on tuition fees, Mr Halfon said: “If I had been the prime minister [at the election], I would have got up and said, ‘we will look at tuition fees and easing the interest rates, or whatever it may be; however, it’s impossible for the country to afford [Labour’s policy to scrap fees] and we’ve got to be fair to students, fair to the taxpayer. However, what we’re going to do is something very different, we’re going to offer every young person from the age of 16, if they want it, a state-of-the-art, quality apprenticeship from level two right up to degree level’.”
Such a pledge would “invest many billions in degree-level apprenticeships and build a skills nation”, offering students the chance to “earn while you learn and have no debt” and be “virtually guaranteed a job at the end of it”, he added.