Halfon as HE minister spells apprenticeship push for sector

Former education committee chair ‘appears to have interest in detail of policy’ and sees employability as purpose of university

November 8, 2022
Skills, apprenticeships, and careers event held at NEC, Birmingham to illustrate Halfon as skills minister spells apprenticeship push for sector
Source: Alamy

The confirmation of Robert Halfon’s appointment as higher education minister in the Westminster government brings in a politician who “appears to have an interest in the detail of policy”, who sees employability as the purpose of university and who will ramp up his crusade on degree apprenticeships.

Mr Halfon, who will oversee English universities as minister for skills, apprenticeships and higher education, is a former chair of the House of Commons education select committee. In 2017, he told Times Higher Education he wanted to see 50 per cent of those going into higher education taking degree apprenticeships and called for “a radical look at what university is for”, so funding incentivises the study of subjects that address the UK’s “skills deficits”.

The Harlow MP – an advocate of working-class Toryism and an admirer of free market, individualist thinker Ayn Rand – replaced Andrea Jenkyns, the former skills minister, who exited the Department for Education after Rishi Sunak replaced Liz Truss as prime minister.

Ms Jenkyns courted controversy with comments to a Tory conference fringe event that university courses were offering “critical race theory, anti-British history and sociological Marxism”, and that the “current system would rather our young people get a degree in Harry Potter studies than the apprenticeships shaping construction”.

Mr Halfon arrives with the DfE looking for budget savings as the Treasury prepares to implement cross-government cuts. That may have implications for other decisions on higher education to be made by the department: the development of the lifelong loan entitlement and whether to push on with plans to restrict student numbers developed under previous minister Michelle Donelan.

Sir David Bell, the University of Sunderland vice-chancellor and former DfE permanent secretary, said Mr Halfon “comes with the advantage of knowing a fair bit about the education brief through his role as chair of the select committee. I’m less certain about his detailed knowledge of higher education – beyond what he did through the select committee – but I welcome the fact that we have a politician who appears to have an interest in the detail of policy.”

Sir David added: “Mr Halfon also knows a good deal about skills and so I hope that he will recognise the crucial role that universities, as well as colleges, play in preparing the workforce of the future, as well as supporting the workforce of the present.”

Jessica Lister, senior policy manager for higher education at political consultancy Public First, said it was “well documented that Robert Halfon’s two favourite words in the English language are ‘degree apprenticeships’”.

“I would advise that any university which doesn’t currently offer such provision makes sure they have an answer as to why not prepared pretty quickly,” she said.

At the 2017 THE World Academic Summit, University of Oxford vice-chancellor Louise Richardson criticised “extraordinary” comments by Mr Halfon about employability being the purpose of higher education.

When Mr Halfon spoke to THE later that year, he reiterated his belief “that the whole purpose of going to university is to get a very highly skilled and better paid job”, and said that the “university system must be re-geared” to address skills deficits and future economic needs, including by having far more students on degree apprenticeships.

Diana Beech, chief executive of London Higher and a former policy adviser to Conservative universities ministers, said it was “a pity” that Mr Sunak “did not use the recent reshuffle as an opportunity to reappoint a dedicated ‘universities minister’ who has oversight of both the teaching and research portfolios” – the position occupied by earlier Tory ministers including Lord Johnson of Marylebone and Lord Willetts.


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