From education to employment

Conservatives aim to boost Apprenticeships by 100,000 per year to replace ‘rip off’ Degrees

Rishi Sunak Thinking

Rishi Sunak has announced that if the Conservative Party win the next General Election on the 4th July 2024, they will replace ‘rip off Degrees’ with 100,000 Apprenticeships by 2029.

The Conservative Party plans to create 100,000 new apprenticeships annually by 2029/30, at an estimated cost of £885 million. To fund this initiative, they propose shutting down ‘underperforming university courses’, redirecting students to employment or better-performing programs. They highlight that this strategy would also save money on student loans for these ‘under performing’ courses.

The Conservative Party proposed scrapping courses for 13% of students to save £910m by 2030. They argued that removing courses leading to lower earnings would reduce unpaid student debt or when graduates do not earn enough money to pay back their student loan. The party assumed 75% of affected students would find jobs or apprenticeships instead. The Conservatives claimed the savings would fund 100,000 new apprenticeships annually by the next parliament’s end.

Rishi Sunak said:

“Improving education is the closest thing we have to a silver bullet for boosting life chances. So, it’s not fair that some university courses are ripping young people off.

“Thanks to our plan, apprenticeships are much higher quality than they were under Labour. And now we will create 100,000 more, by putting an end to rip-off degrees and offering our young people the employment opportunities and financial security they need to thrive.

“That’s the choice at this election – the Conservatives with our clear plan to grow the economy and give people the opportunities they need for a secure future, or Labour who have no plan and would take us back to square one.”

The rival political parties views on the Conservatives creating 100,000 more Apprenticeships per year

Bridget Phillipson, Labour’s Shadow Education Secretary, responding to the Conservatives’ announcement on apprenticeships, said:

“It is laughable that the Tories, who have presided over a halving of apprenticeships for young people, are now announcing this. 

“Why on earth should parents and young people believe they’ll create training opportunities now, after 14 years of failing to deliver opportunities for young people and the skills needed to grow our economy?

“Labour will get our economy growing again by gearing apprenticeships to young people and delivering a new Growth and Skills Levy to provide the skills businesses need. We’ll create a new generation of Technical Excellence Colleges, working with employers and our world class universities, to get people into good jobs in their area.” 

Responding to the Conservative party’s announcement on apprenticeships, Liberal Democrat Education spokesperson, Munira Wilson MP said:

“The Conservative party has broken the apprenticeship system and this announcement does nothing to address the major issues the sector faces.

“The shockingly low pay for those on apprenticeships will remain, doing nothing to encourage more people to take apprenticeships up or tackle soaring drop out rates. 

“This treatment of apprentices as second-class workers will only continue under the Conservatives.

“Urgent reform is needed, not more muddled, ill-thought through bluster from a party that has decimated our education sector and our economy.”

The Liberal Democrat’s Education team highlighted that data from the House of Commons Library shows that there were almost 160,000 fewer apprenticeship starts in 2022/23 compared with six years ago.

Sector Reaction

Rosalind Gill, Head of Policy and Engagement at the National Centre for Universities and Business (NCUB) said:

“University is a significant investment with profound returns. Graduates drive knowledge economies, typically facing lower unemployment and higher wages. However, the Prime Minister’s plan, unveiled today of capping student numbers on ‘low-quality courses’ in England misses the mark. This policy uses past data to limit future opportunities. The new Government must instead strive to understand future needs to inform today’s higher education.”

Gill continued:

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

Gill concluded:

“We are facing a severe skills crisis in the UK, with four in five businesses facing recruitment issues. Whilst we are very supportive of a proposed, increased number of apprenticeships, 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.”

University and College Union (UCU) general secretary Jo Grady said:

“Higher education provides a ladder of opportunity to working-class communities, so it is no wonder the Conservative Party continues to attack it.

“The Tories have had 14 years to improve further education and provide more apprenticeships, but they have repeatedly missed their own apprenticeship recruitment targets while making brutal cuts, which have left colleges on their knees.

“We need an end to Tory MPs playing politics with further and higher education, and sustainable funding for the whole sector.”

Ben Rowland, AELP Chief Executive Officer, said:

“On top of the existing “guarantee” to meet demand amongst small and medium sized employers for apprenticeships, announced by government in March, the Conservative promise for an extra £900m leading to 100,000 more apprenticeships is very welcome. This sets a challenge to the other political parties to match this additional funding.

“Today’s announcement would help meet demand for apprenticeships. They require the offer of a real job, so we still need to stimulate more demand among employers – especially SMEs. This requires proper incentives and more flexibility over the duration of apprenticeships and their content. Whichever party finds itself in government there will need to be a commitment to encouraging more employers offering apprenticeship opportunities. After all, if individual employers don’t step up, we will be failing the 900,000 young people not in employment, education or training.”

Julian Gravatt, Deputy Chief Executive, Association of Colleges, said: 

“We welcome the target of 100,000 extra apprenticeships, but there are questions about this proposal from the Prime Minister. 

“There is no cap on higher education, so if you shut down some courses which the government deems to be low quality, students may simply take a different degree-level course. It’s therefore hard to see how that saving would transfer to apprenticeships.  

“Any future government must focus its efforts on apprenticeships for young people and those who are disadvantaged who are entering the labour market, rather than those who are wanting to complete a degree. Our report, 100% Opportunity: the case for a tertiary education system, showed that the introduction of the levy has resulted in perverse outcomes, with fewer young people and less focus on those from disadvantaged households completing an apprenticeship, while more money is spent on people already in good jobs. 

“Urgent reform of the apprenticeship levy, ensuring that at least half of the levy should be spent on apprenticeships for new job starters and entry level jobs, would lead to more young people across the country completing an apprenticeship.” 

Chloe Field, NUS Vice President Higher Education, said:

“To suggest that 1 in 8 degrees are low quality and should be scrapped is an insult to the students who work hard in the midst of a cost of living crisis to study them. If the Conservatives win their only offer to young people seems to be conscription or course cuts.

“Education should be a matter of building social prosperity and solving issues the world is facing right now, not financial value. The idea of “low value” degrees, judged by future earning potential, is a poor metric because things like race, class, gender, and disability have a much more significant impact on people’s wages. Additionally, value cannot only be judged by how much one contributes to a capitalist economy, instead, value derives from supporting communities and improving people’s lives. Every degree that a student wants to do should be fully funded and accessible.

“However, we are glad that the Conservatives recognise the value of funding apprenticeships. These must be used to offer chances to those who would otherwise not be in higher education. The current apprenticeship system is unfit to do this; we hear time and time again that the £6.40 minimum wage for apprentices stops people from poorer backgrounds from being able to access apprenticeships. If the Conservatives want to encourage more people to undertake apprenticeships, they must raise the apprentice minimum wage to the Real Living Wage.”

Dr Annette Bramley, director of the N8 Research Partnership – the collective body for the north’s eight research intensive universities, said:

“Much like efficiency drives for the civil service or crackdowns on supposed benefit fraud, the talking down of certain university degrees is an easy way to grab headlines while fundamentally failing to understand the situation at hand. That neither the Prime Minister nor schools minister Damian Hinds would name the so called ‘Mickey Mouse’ degrees they seek to abolish reflects the lack of seriousness behind this policy announcement.   

“University degrees and apprenticeships are not in competition. Research intensive universities like those in the N8 are at the forefront of exploring the technologies that will define our future, such as AI and quantum computing. Yet those technologies will not achieve their potential in the UK unless we have a workforce with a wide range of skills, many of which will be gained from university degrees of all types, other further education routes and apprenticeships. This involves these qualifications working together in tandem, not sacrificing one for the other.   

“At a time when universities of all backgrounds are under immense financial pressure, we would welcome the opportunity to work with government to discuss a holistic strategy that harnesses our contributions to innovation, social mobility, economic development and international engagement. Universities are not perfect, and we are open to constructive criticism, but it is counterproductive for government to focus on muddled proposals like this that fail to appreciate the role universities can play in boosting economies and skills throughout the country.”  

Suzanne Straw, NFER Research Director, said: 

“There has been a sharp decline in young people under 19 starting apprenticeships at intermediate and advanced level since the introduction of the levy in April 2017, with the number falling by almost a third since 2017/8.

“The next Government needs to work with businesses, particularly small-and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), to reverse this decline. One key action would be introducing an additional financial incentive for SME employers who recruit 16-18-year-old apprentices who require extra support, for example young people who are disadvantaged and do not hold level 2 in English and maths.

“Raising the minimum apprenticeship wage for 16-17-year-olds, and more widespread introduction of discounted or free travel passes for this age group, would also make apprenticeships a more attractive and financially viable option. This may help to incentivise more young people to both consider and complete apprenticeships.”

Commenting on apprenticeship announcements by the Conservatives, Neil Carberry, REC Chief Executive, said:

“The apprenticeship brand is strong in the UK, and it is great that skills are part of the General Election debate. But the announcements by the Conservatives do not deliver the reform that many employers want and shows the need for policymakers to work closer with business on solutions.

“It does not address the failures of the apprenticeship levy, it does not focus on the intermediate level skills that our economy needs or focus on young workers. After all, we need both apprenticeships and university courses to provide pathways for young people to flourish and overcome labour and skills shortages to help our economy to grow.

“We are still left with an apprenticeship levy that is making apprenticeships for 16–18-year-olds very costly and employers better off if they do fewer apprenticeships than more. It also drives apprenticeships for older workers, when we also have got to get young people into work.”

John McNamara, Interim Chief Executive of the Federation of Awarding Bodies said:

“The Conservative policy pledge on providing extra funding to provide 100,000 apprenticeship places by 2029, is ambitious and, if implemented, would provide £0.880M in funding. This would be a welcome boost to the system. As ever of course, the devil is in the detail, and much depends on where the additional apprenticeship placements come from. There is a pressing need to ensure that employers engage more apprentices, and any incoming government will need to provide further incentives and encouragement to get them involved. This is especially the case for small and medium sized enterprises.”

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