Universities: Prime Minister pledges to eliminate “fraudulent degrees”

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The Conservatives have promised to scrap some university courses in England to help fund 100,000 apprenticeships a year if they win the July election.

The party says it would replace the “worst performing” courses it considers a “scam” due to high dropout rates and “poor” job prospects.

Labor criticized the government over the decline in the number of new apprentices.

He said he would prioritize “orienting” learning towards young people.

The Liberal Democrats said the government had treated apprentices as “second-class workers”.

The Conservatives said former Labor Prime Minister Tony Blair’s ambition to get half of young people to university had “led to a skyrocketing rise in low-value qualifications”.

In England, the Students’ Office can already investigate and sanction a university (for example, with fines) if it does not meet certain standards.

The Conservatives say they would introduce a new law that would allow the independent regulator to go further and shut down the worst-performing university courses entirely.

They would be determined by attrition rates, career progression and future earning potential, according to a news release.

It is not the first time Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has pledged to “crack down on fraudulent university courses”.

Last July, the government announced plans to ask the OfS to limit student numbers on courses that were “not achieving good outcomes for students”.

The Conservative Party estimated the government would save £910 million by 2030 by axing courses teaching 13% of students.

He said this was because the taxpayer “offsets” student loans when graduates don’t earn enough money to pay them off. The logic here is that eliminating courses that lead to lower income would result in less unpaid debt.

The party’s calculations are based on the assumption that 75% of the students who would have enrolled in those courses would obtain a job or do internships.

However, there is no limit on the total number of students that universities in England can admit, so universities could recruit students for other courses if some were closed.

The Conservatives said their savings would allow the government to spend £885 million on creating 100,000 more apprentices a year by the end of the next parliament.

Rachel Hewitt, chief executive of MillionPlus, the Partnership for Modern Universities, said that while apprenticeships are an important part of the skills landscape, they do not need to be pitted against higher education.

“Modern universities across the country already offer excellent apprenticeship programs that combine university-level study and industry experience, meaning students can earn money as they learn,” he added.

Labour’s shadow education secretary Bridget Phillipson said the announcement was “laughable” because the Conservatives had “presided over halving apprenticeships for young people”.

He reiterated his party’s promises to introduce schools of technical excellence aimed at training workers for local industries and to reform the apprenticeship levy into a “growth and skills levy”, which the party said would allow businesses to spend up to half of their tax payments on “more flexible training courses”.

Munira Wilson, education spokesperson for the Liberal Democrats, said the Conservatives had “broken the apprenticeship system” and “reform is urgently needed”.

“Shockingly low salaries for trainees will continue, without doing anything to encourage more people to take trainees or tackle rising attrition rates,” he said.

There are no UK-wide figures on the number of apprentices, but numbers have fallen over time in England.

The number of new apprentices fell from 509,400 in 2015/16 to 321,400 in 2020/21. It has increased slightly since the pandemic, reaching 337,100 in 2022/23.

The government has said it wants more young people to start apprenticeships. Last year, 23% of new apprentices were under 19 years old.

Overall, the number of young people starting apprenticeships fell from 131,400 in 2015/16 to 65,200 in 2020/21, and rose to 77,700 in 2022/23.

School leaver rates in England are around one in two.

Just over half (53.4%) of apprentices completed and passed a final assessment in 2021/22, well below the government’s target of 67% by the end of 2024/25.

If you are under 19, or if you are 19 or over but in the first year of your apprenticeship, you are entitled to the apprentice rate, £6.40 per hour.

Otherwise, you will earn at least minimum wage.