Williamson: ‘dead-end’ degrees give students ‘nothing but debt’

UK education secretary says three-year undergraduate programme ‘should never be the default’

February 25, 2021
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Education secretary Gavin Williamson has said he wants to “end the dominance” of the traditional bachelor’s degree in English higher education, hitting out at “dead-end courses” that give students “nothing but a mountain of debt”.

In a speech delivered on 25 February for the launch of Sir Michael Barber’s review of digital teaching and learning in higher education, Mr Williamson said “many of our degrees are absolutely fantastic, but they should never be the default”.

“I want to end the dominance of the three-year bachelor’s degree in higher education. Whether it’s a degree apprenticeship, a higher national diploma or a set of modules in engineering and business, for many people there are simply better ways of studying,” he said.

Mr Williamson added that “instead of pushing young people on to dead-end courses that give them nothing but a mountain of debt, we need universities and colleges to work together to address the gaps in our labour market, and create the valuable and technical courses our society needs”.

“I know that they are up for this challenge – indeed, many are already embracing it and already delivering on it,” he added, highlighting that the Westminster government’s Lifetime Skills Guarantee “is how we will make this dream a reality”.

The guarantee, announced in September, will give individuals flexible loan funding for four years of post-18 education, allowing people to break study into shorter segments.

Earlier this month, former universities minister Chris Skidmore warned ministers against neglecting the role of higher education institutions in their ambitions to revive lifelong learning.

Mr Williamson also spoke about the potential for online learning to transform international study and for degrees to be delivered partly remotely and partly in the UK.

“Rather than simply delivering degrees on site, in future universities will be able to provide a much wider and more innovative portfolio. We may, perhaps, see degrees in which an international student studies remotely for two years before completing their degree with an in-person experience year on a UK campus,” he said.

“This sort of change would revolutionise demand, at a stroke bringing a UK degree in reach of the emerging middle classes of India and south-east Asia.”

ellie.bothwell@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (3)

Typical of an idiot like Williamson to not notice that it is *student loans* that create student debt.
Start funding universities better and scrap tuition fees to take away their incentive to lure in students. If universities have no incentive to expand (or even to shrink to preserve quality), the rest will follow. The government is paying off most people's tuition debt anyway.
Again Williamson demonstrates his clear lack of understanding of Higher Education. If any degree course needs review, perhaps we should begin with seeing how good the one he took was if he's an example of the sort of graduate it turns out! As Billx says, it is the funding model imposed - against the universities' advice & wishes - by successive governments that causes the debt. Even as a minimum grant student (topped up by a small scholarship) I left university rather a long time ago with money in my pocket and a good education between my ears... and that's the thing Williamson misses: the quality of the education, not how much you earn after completing it. We really need an Education Minister who values education, not a dim-wit who cannot see the value in being equipped with an open and enquiring mind, with the ability to think and to learn: the stuff that sets you up for a lifetime.

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