Sunak government final straight offers ‘diminished vision of HE’

Pledge to rebalance from ‘poor-quality degrees’ to apprenticeships seen as likely rhetoric only, but there are hopes for international student reset

November 20, 2023
Big Ben gets help to cross the finish line during the Virgin Money London Marathon in London to illustrate Sunak government final straight offers ‘diminished vision of HE’
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With Rishi Sunak’s reshuffled government potentially under a year from a UK general election, sector figures see it following a “diminished vision of higher education” whereby the idea of rebalancing towards apprenticeships is likely to be rhetoric only, though there is hope for a reset on international students.

As some tipped an election for October 2024, the government’s King’s Speech setting out its legislative agenda for the coming parliament said that “proposals will be implemented to reduce the number of young people studying poor-quality university degrees and increase the number undertaking high-quality apprenticeships”. That appeared to refer to previously announced plans to introduce a system of student number controls in England for courses falling below the Office for Students’ quality baselines.

Vivienne Stern, the Universities UK chief executive, said the organisation had “spent the last couple of weeks trying to fend off a proposed restriction on level 7 [equivalent to a master’s degree] apprenticeships”.

“Apparently, there is concern that companies are using the levy to fund high-level management education, and some in government want to prevent that,” she added.

This contradicted evidence that “more high-quality management training is exactly what the economy needs if we are to close the productivity gap”, argued Ms Stern. “So I hope that, when government talks about ‘increasing high-quality apprenticeships’, they don’t end up doing the opposite.”

The government’s briefing document published alongside the King’s Speech made it clear there was no legislation planned to implement student number controls.

Jonathan Simons, head of the education practice at political consultancy Public First, said: “I’d expect it to be absolutely nothing other than rhetoric. Recruiting is already happening for courses starting in September 2024 – let alone January 2024 or spring 2024 for those providers with multiple entrance points – so it’s unfeasible for anything to happen before courses starting in 2025, and the election is just going to time them out on this.”

Asked what the government might seek to do on higher education between now and an election, Sir Chris Husbands, the Sheffield Hallam University vice-chancellor, said the answer might be “not very much”.

Increasing demand for apprenticeships “driven not by government but by employers”, so growth included 16- to 20-year-olds, would involve “a complex re-engineering of the skills system, and no government can do that in its final year”, he added.

Mr Sunak recently sacked Suella Braverman – who often pushed to reduce international student numbers as a means to reducing net migration – as home secretary, replacing her with former foreign secretary James Cleverly.

Ms Stern said this “should be an opportunity for a reset…Given that international students bring over £40 billion to the UK, it is curious that a government focused on economic growth has been trying so hard to put them off.”

More generally, Sir Chris said, it “really does seem as though the current government is largely positioning itself around a very diminished vision of higher education; Labour has a more expansive vision.

“The challenge for both is to fix the funding base for the sector as inflation erodes the fee and pushes up costs. There’s not enough evidence that either the government or, in public, the opposition have grappled with that.”

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