Robert Halfon, MP for Harlow and chair of the Commons Education Committee, calls for the an end to the UK’s obsession with academic degrees and demand a dramatic increase in the delivery of basic skills and technical training by the Further Education and Higher Education sectors.
In a keynote speech delivered at the Centre for Social Justice, in collaboration with Open University and the Learning and Work Institute, Robert says that only such a revolution can eradicate the skills gap which currently leaves one third of 16-19-year-olds with low basic skills, threatening a generation with “a tidal wave of lost opportunity”.
He will argue that rebalancing Further and Higher Education is crucial to delivering social justice. This rebalancing, he argues, must involve redirecting funding from academic courses towards courses and degrees focussing on technical and basic skills.
The jewel in the crown of a revamped Further and Higher Education sector, he will say, should be degree apprenticeships which blend technical and academic education.

In his speech on February 5, Robert said:

We have become obsessed with full academic degrees in this country. We are creating a higher education system that overwhelmingly favours academic degrees, while intermediate and higher technical offerings are comparatively tiny.

The labour market does not need an ever-growing supply of academic degrees. Between a fifth and a third of our graduates take non-graduate jobs. The graduate premium” varies wildly according to subject and institution. For many, the returns are paltry.

It is crucial that we recognise that skills are a social justice issue. Those who are disadvantaged have the most to gain by climbing the education ladder of opportunity out of deprivation and in to high skilled employment.

Key policy suggestions Robert will put forward include:

  • Fine-tuning the Apprenticeship Levy to help disadvantaged apprentices. Introducing a taper on the Apprenticeship Levy to allow employers to pay smaller contributions if they employ disadvantaged apprentices and address skills shortages.
  • Cutting grants to universities unless they offer degree apprenticeships. Ring-fencing a significant portion of the enormous public subsidy of universities so that it can only be accessed if the university offers degree apprenticeships.
  • Challenging the Russell Group’s reputation where they don't deliver value for money. Addressing the sometimes undeserved reputation of Russell Group Universities where they are highly ranked because of their research and not because they always offer employability skills, quality teaching, and value for money for undergraduate students.
  • Protecting and ring-fencing funding of flexible, online and part-time Higher Education. Protecting the funding of flexible, online and part-time Higher Education, like the Open University, by ring-fencing the Part-time Premium element of the Higher Education Funding Council’s Widening Participation funding allocation.
  • Closer integration of the FE and HE sectors on delivering higher level apprenticeships. Closer working between Further and Higher Education, particularly on delivering higher level apprenticeships and offering flexible and local options for those who need it.

James Scales, Head of Education Policy for the Centre for Social Justice, added:

Technical education is still a pale shadow of its academic cousin. It is vital that we unlock technical education's enormous potential.
Supercharged by technological innovation, the world economy is redefining the contours of economic success and we must find a secure place in this new terrain.
Invariably, our most disadvantaged pupils have the most to gain from addressing our skills deficit. By building a world-class technical offering, we would open a powerful conduit for social justice.

Stephen Evans LW 100x100Stephen Evans, Chief Executive of the Learning and Work Institute, commented:

It's time for a call to arms to tackle our skills challenge. Nine million adults have low literacy or nu-meracy, and one million fewer adults are improving their skills each year than in 2010. Growth in ap-prenticeships is welcome, but we need everyone to be able to access one. We need to tackle inequali-ties: our analysis shows adults in the Government's Opportunity Areas, where it is focusing social mo-bility efforts, have lower employment, lower pay, and lower chances of higher education.

All of this is ever more crucial as the tectonic plates of our economy and society shift, driven by auto-mation, growth in new forms of work, and the need for Global Britain to find new ways to pros-per. There is no silver bullet to building prosperity and ensuring everyone shares in it. But skills is as close as you get, and we need to invest more. That's why we need a skills revolution. We want a 15 year commitment to help all adults improve their basic skills, a focus on widening access to high quality apprenticeships, and a more flexible ap-proach to higher education. All of this requires a partnership between people, employers and govern-ment. It's central to having the highest ambition for all our citizens and for our country's future.

Angela Murray100x100Angela Middleton, Chairman and Founder of MiddletonMurray, said:

Robert Halfon’s call for a rebalancing of the university “obsession” and full academic degrees is important. All too often, employers, young people, their parents and their schools, opt for the traditional university route without considering how it can support career goals.

The UK is making inroads to a new era of more vocational education, and there’s been a shift to degree apprenticeships alongside academia in universities, but there is much more to be done.

Last year’s Apprenticeship Levy means household names like Goldman Sachs and PWC are offering degree apprenticeships that give this vocational route greater kudos – and awareness – to young people.

Robert’s speech is a powerful reminder that the UK can and must rebalance its focus on education and quality careers advice in order to prepare and upskill the next generation of workers.

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