More apprentices ‘shouldn’t come at higher education’s expense’

Tory plans to close low-performing degrees to fund apprenticeships ‘miss the mark’, says UK sector

May 29, 2024
Source: iStock/Amorn Suriyan

Investment in apprenticeships need not be accompanied by further restrictions on degrees, higher education leaders said, after the Conservatives unveiled plans to close the “poorest-performing” university courses in order to create 100,000 more apprentice roles.

In the first significant higher education-related announcement of the election campaign, the Tories have promised a renewed “crackdown on rip-off degrees” if they win the election, promising to shut courses with the highest dropout rates and poorest job prospects, with one in eight set to close.

Money saved in unpaid debt from student loans would be used to fund a yearly increase in apprenticeships, although rival parties have pointed out that the number of positions available has been falling while the Conservatives have been in power.

The plans have also been criticised by the higher education sector. Rosalind Gill, head of policy and engagement at the National Centre for Universities and Business (NCUB), said they “miss the mark”, adding that the policy “uses past data to limit future opportunities” and instead the next government should “strive to understand future needs to inform today’s higher education”.

“Such measures would unfairly target disadvantaged students and places with lower wages, stifling social mobility and entrepreneurship,” Ms Gill added. “Instead, the government should leverage labour market data to help educational institutions prepare for future needs.”

She said with the country facing a “severe skills crisis”, more apprenticeships were needed, but “this does not mean the government needs to take further measures to restrict higher education”.

“UK universities excel globally, not only in research but also in student completion rates, crucial for economic prosperity. We hope the new government recognises this, and is prepared to make sensible decisions, for the future of work.”

Writing on X, Vivienne Stern, the chief executive of Universities UK, said the figure cited by the party of one in eight courses needing to close did not reflect data held by the Office for Students (OfS), which has found only 1 per cent of students are registered with providers that are deemed to be falling below expectations.

She said there was a “narrow-minded obsession” with earnings as a measure of quality that “missed the many other benefits of going to university – to the individual and the country”, and she was “fed up of people talking down universities – which are one of the things the UK can be genuinely proud of”.

Under the Conservatives’ plans, a new law would hand the Office for Students (OfS) the power to close courses deemed to be not performing. Currently the regulator can investigate and fine universities deemed to be offering low-quality courses.

While in office, the party previously promised to cap the number of students who can enrol on so-called rip-off courses and introduce a minimum entry requirement for students to be eligible for Student Loans Company funding, in plans that were eventually parked. 

Appearing on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme, schools minister Damian Hinds declined to name any “rip-off degrees” because it would not be “fair” to current students, but said outcomes can vary widely even on the same subject, with computer science degrees, for example, resulting in earnings of between £18,000 and £80,000.

“If you do two years of a three-year course and then drop out, you are left with very little from that time,” he said. “You’ve given up a really important time of your young life.

“We want to make sure that 18-year-olds, whatever further course of study or training they are embarking on, that it should be high quality.

“We are not talking in this policy about stopping somebody doing a course they are currently doing. We are also not talking about saying to any individual you can’t go to university, not at all.

“What we are saying is that if you’ve got a poorly performing course, actually it shouldn’t be recruiting more students, and we need to be putting resource into those high-quality opportunities whether they are in a university or an apprenticeship.”

Bridget Phillipson, Labour’s shadow education secretary, said it was “laughable” that the Tories were announcing more apprenticeships, having “presided over a halving of apprenticeships for young people” while in office.

Munira Wilson, the Liberal Democrat education spokesperson, said the Conservatives had “broken the apprenticeship system and this announcement does nothing to address the major issues the sector faces”, such as low pay and “soaring” dropout rates.

University and College Union general secretary Jo Grady said Tory MPs should stop “playing politics with further and higher education” and “implement sustainable funding for the whole sector” instead.

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Reader's comments (1)

Students - and universities - are being 'ripped off' by the government's abject failure to invest in the future of the nation by funding higher education effectively... but will Labour do any better? Judging by its graduates, the first course to close should be Oxford's PPE - it's produced a string of mediocre polititians that have wrecked a once-fine nation.