Sunak promises to replace 'rip-off' degrees with apprenticeships

The Conservative Party has announced a bold move to scrap certain university courses in England, which they brand as a ‘scam’, in order to fund 100,000 apprenticeships a year if they secure victory at the upcoming elections in July.

The proposed plan targets graduates with high dropout rates and poor job prospects, with the aim of redistributing funds to support vocational training. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak criticized former Labor Prime Minister Tony Blair’s target to send half of young people to university, arguing this has resulted in an increase in the number of low-value degrees.

In a press release, the Conservatives outlined their intention to introduce legislation that would give the Office for Students the power to close the worst-performing courses, assessed against metrics such as dropout rates, job progression and future earnings potential. This follows the government’s announcement last July to limit the number of students for courses that do not produce good results.

The Conservatives estimate that ending these courses could save the government £910 million by 2030. This figure is based on the assumption that students in underperforming courses would otherwise have lower incomes, leading to unpaid student debt that would ultimately have to be paid by taxpayers. They predict that 75% of students from these courses would transition into employment or an apprenticeship.

Labor has criticized the government for overseeing a significant drop in new apprenticeships, with shadow education secretary Bridget Phillipson calling the announcement ‘laughable’. She reiterated Labour’s plans to introduce colleges of technical excellence and reform the apprenticeship levy to allow more flexible training options.

The Liberal Democrats also condemned the current state of the apprenticeship system, with education spokeswoman Munira Wilson highlighting low pay and high dropout rates as key issues in need of urgent reform.

Rachel Hewitt, CEO of MillionPlus, emphasized that apprenticeships and higher education should not be seen as opposites. She pointed out that modern universities already offer internships, which combine academic study with industry experience, allowing students to earn while they learn.

Despite the criticism, the Conservative Party is standing firm on its position, predicting that the proposed cuts would allow the government to invest £885 million annually in creating 100,000 additional apprenticeships by the end of the next parliament.

The number of new apprenticeships in England has fallen from 509,400 in 2015/16 to 321,400 in 2020/21, with a slight increase to 337,100 in 2022/2023. However, dropout rates remain a concern with only 53.4% ​​of students completing their program in 2021/2022, which is below the government target of 67% by the end of 2024/2025.

Overall, the proposed “triple lock plus” plan aims to refocus education funding on vocational training and apprenticeships, addressing long-standing concerns about the value and outcomes of certain university degrees. The Conservatives are positioning these policies as a key element of their strategy to improve employment prospects and economic stability for future generations.

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