MP: cut university entry and ‘divert’ cash to apprenticeships

Tory conference hears much talk of apprenticeships, with education secretary on mission to ‘change every middle-class mind in country’

October 3, 2023
Whitstable, Kent, UK, February 2021 - Fisherman statue in the harbour at Whitstable, Kent, UK
Source: iStock

The Westminster government should reduce the number of people going to university in England and “divert” the money into apprenticeships, according to a member of the New Conservatives group, the faction taking an increasingly vocal stance on restricting higher education.

Lia Nici, Conservative MP for Greater Grimsby, who co-authored a recent report for the group of “Red Wall” Tory MPs calling for entry restrictions to reduce the numbers at university, made the comments at a fringe meeting at the party’s conference in Manchester.

Ms Nici said that in Grimsby’s fish-processing sector, previously reliant on “cheap migrant labour”, Brexit had “woken up those employers to realise they have got to upgrade the way they do things” via robotics and automation, which would increase demand for apprenticeships.

But, said the former lecturer in media production at further and higher education college the Grimsby Institute, “successive governments” had prioritised entry to university.

“The reason that university entrance has grown so much” was that “firstly New Labour had a real crisis in front of it” in facing high youth unemployment and had been “very clever and said 50 per cent will now go to university”, Ms Nici told the event, hosted by the Liverpool City Region Combined Authority.

University was “easy to get into” via an accessible loans system, whereas “if you’re an employer and you want to engage an apprentice it’s incredibly difficult”, she continued.

On apprenticeships, “the key really is, can government afford to do it, while we are putting hundreds of billions of pounds into people going to university?” she asked.

Given that university “does not guarantee you a high wage, does not guarantee you a job…what we need to do is start to have a look seriously at what we’re funding”, Ms Nici continued.

“We’ve got to actually start to look realistically at do we need that amount of people going into academic degrees” and “divert that money [from university] into people getting apprenticeships”, she added.

Meanwhile, another fringe event on degree apprenticeships, hosted by the Policy Exchange thinktank, heard from education secretary Gillian Keegan, who described herself as “the only degree apprentice in the House of Commons”.

Ms Keegan said that, since being the apprenticeships and skills minister, she had been on a mission to “change every middle-class mind in the country” on apprenticeships.

Hence, she had wanted to “take apprenticeships to where they [the middle classes] are”, with the government creating apprenticeship routes to being a “medical doctor, a lawyer and an accountant, because they are the professions people aspire to”.

Apprentices gaining level 4 or 5 qualifications can “out-earn most graduates five years later, becoming an expert in cybersecurity…or a robotics engineer”, Ms Keegan said.

But asked whether she would want to see 50 per cent of higher education students on degree apprenticeships, the education secretary said: “I won’t be setting a target.”

The Labour government’s target for 50 per cent of young people to gain higher education qualifications had been “arbitrary”, had “created some really bad practice” and had “helped the system but hasn’t really helped people”, she continued. “What I really want to see is universities, FE colleges and employers working really closely together.”

David Goodhart, head of demography, immigration and integration at Policy Exchange, who chaired the panel and has argued for the return of polytechnics, asked “are we, 40 years later, through the degree apprenticeship, recreating the polytechnic?”

Malcolm Press, the Manchester Metropolitan University vice-chancellor who also appeared on the panel, said: “The difference is that universities do research. My university was ranked 38th for research in the last Research Excellence Framework.”

MMU’s 2,500 degree apprentices, such as those in cybersecurity, “benefit from the research infrastructure that universities like mine have…No, we shouldn’t go back [to polytechnics],” he said.

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Reader's comments (1)

It's not up to the government where people choose to pursue their educations: their sole role is to ensure that everyone seeking to improve their knowledge and skills is properly funded - something they signally fail to do.