The UK General Election - 4th July 2024

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Degree or not degree? That is the question.

Myles Hanlon

Senior Account Manager

As parties launch their campaigns to secure an electorate victory on 4th July, the Conservatives have already generated a tidal wave of noise across the further and higher education sectors following their announcement to replace “rip-off degrees” with 100,000 new apprenticeships by 2029 at an estimated cost of £885 million. 

The Conservatives’ emphasis on apprenticeship provision is not a novelty to those in either sector, however the announcement has raised questions about its achievability and impact on both further and higher education. 

Framed under the mission to tackle “low-quality courses” in higher education, the Conservatives propose to redirect higher education students to employment or apprenticeships as they scrap 13% of courses to generate £910 million by 2030. The Party says removing “low-quality” courses that lead to a lower earning would reduce unpaid student debt. 

It is assumed by the Conservatives that 75% of the students affected by course closures would find jobs or move onto an apprenticeship programme instead. 

To achieve this, the Conservatives announced that the Office for Students – the regulator for higher education in England – would be granted additional powers to close courses deemed as underperforming based on non-continuation, progression and earnings potential data. 

Yet given the scale of this policy objective, the question must be asked: is this realistically achievable? 

Further education 

In previous years, interest in degree apprenticeships was on an upward trajectory. Learners were actively seeking out opportunities to take up an apprenticeship qualification over higher education. For example, in 2021 over 18% of those applying for an undergraduate degree said they were also applying for a degree apprenticeship. This came after the Conservatives implemented initiatives to apprenticeships including the Apprenticeship Levy in 2017, leading to businesses paying for apprenticeship training and being able to transfer unused Levy funds to other businesses to support widespread apprenticeship provision. 

Yet despite increased investment in apprenticeships over the last seven years, recent data does not paint a hugely positive picture of the current landscape for apprenticeships. 

Research carried out by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) reveals that apprenticeship starts fell in England by around 160,000 by 2022/23, compared to 2014/15 levels; with starts declining across all age groups but more significantly for younger people aged under 19 and between 19 and 24-years-old. Likewise, the same research reveals the achievement rate for apprenticeships was 54.6% for 2022/23, compared to an overall achievement rate of 84% for 19-plus education. 

With data indicating a decline in the take-up of apprenticeships, particularly among young learners, sector voices are suggesting the Conservatives will face significant challenges with achieving the delivery of 100,000 new apprenticeships by 2029. This policy relies on students voluntarily transitioning from wanting to pursue higher to further education, as well as businesses to ensure they have implemented effective and robust apprenticeship programmes to ensure positive outcomes. 

Higher education 

For those in higher education, the primary concern is the fixation on quality and value of courses and the implication that graduate earnings is the most significant factor in determining student success. Vivienne Stern, Chief Executive of Universities UK, and Malcolm Press, Vice Chancellor at Manchester Metropolitan University, have both argued that learners will choose to study on a course that is the most suitable to them, their aspirations and their passions. We know earnings for graduates grows at 72% between 23 and 31 years old, compared to 31% for non-graduates, however determining quality solely based on financial outcome measures may have significant impacts on student choice and the provision of higher education. 

While universities cannot escape the need to provide high-quality courses, currently measured by the B3 conditions by the Office for Students, the announcement of course closures to fund the creation of new apprenticeships seems to insinuate, according to voices in the sector, that students are being “ripped off”. 

Likewise, many have questioned the effectiveness of displacing higher education students under the assumption they will participate in further education. The proposed reduction of 13% of higher education courses will leave around 265,000 undergraduate students displaced from their course of choice. Given the assumption that half of these will take up an apprenticeship, this means that over 132,000 students will transition onto an apprenticeship programme. Not only does this remove students from higher education, thereby reducing income from domestic students during a financially challenging period for universities, it also risks these students choosing employment or studying on an alternative course over taking up an apprenticeship.  

What’s next? 

As the campaigns continue over the coming weeks, we can expect the further and higher education sectors to become vocal about the need for further clarity on what this policy commitment means in practice. The Conservatives will likely need to recognise the existing provisions in higher education to measuring and protecting quality of courses, as well as ensuring that the value of apprenticeships is showcased to resolve the downward trend in participation and encourage alternative post-16 education. 

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