Sunak pledges to replace ‘rip-off’ degrees with skilled apprenticeships

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Rishi Sunak has promised to create 100,000 high-skilled apprenticeships a year by scrapping “rip-off degrees” if he wins the general election.

In the latest of a flurry of announcements as the Conservatives try to narrow Labour’s 20-point poll lead, the party pledged to replace “low-quality” university degrees with apprenticeships.

Under the plans, there would be legislation granting greater powers to the Office for Students, the universities regulator, to close degree courses that are underperforming. These would be chosen based on drop-out rates, job progression and future earnings potential.

The Conservatives said creating 100,000 high-skilled apprenticeships would cost £885m by the end of the next parliament in 2029-30. This would be paid for by shutting down the worst-performing university degrees, which would save an estimated £910m.

Sunak said that “improving education is the closest thing we have to a silver bullet for boosting life chances”. He pledged to create thousands more apprenticeships by “putting an end to rip-off degrees and offering our young people the employment opportunities and financial security they need to thrive”.

The Conservatives claim to have delivered 5.8m apprenticeships since 2010. But the number of people starting out on apprenticeships in England is in decline, falling from 500,000 in 2015 to 337,000 last year, according to Commons library statistics.

The introduction of the apprenticeship levy in 2017-18 and the Covid-19 pandemic have had a negative impact on the number of people starting apprenticeships.

Labour has pledged to replace the apprenticeship levy with a growth and skills levy to fund other types of training. It would allow businesses to use 50% of their funds to pay for non-apprenticeship training.

As they launched their apprenticeship policy, the Conservatives attacked New Labour’s legacy of getting more young people to university. In 1999, Tony Blair set a target to get 50% of young adults into higher education.

Gillian Keegan, the education secretary who completed an apprenticeship at a car factory in Kirkby, said: “When Labour were in power they pushed an arbitrary target to get half of young people to university, creating a boom in low-quality degrees – leaving far too many students saddled with debt and little else.

“The choice is clear. Sir Keir Starmer and the Labour party who have contempt for apprenticeships, or Rishi Sunak and the Conservatives who have a clear plan to give young people the best start to their careers.”

Bridget Phillipson, the shadow education secretary, said the announcement was “laughable”, noting the decline in apprenticeships.

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“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?” she said.

“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.”

Speaking in Staffordshire on Tuesday, Sunak claimed that Labour’s plans would “halve the number of apprenticeships”. Asked by the chief executive of Churchill Ceramics what he would do about the “skills gap”, the prime minister said: “We are a party that believes in increasing the quality and quantity of apprenticeships, a great route for young people to get into work.

“Not everyone has to go to university, and that’s a clear choice at this election, because the Labour party are still clinging to this idea that the only way to succeed in life is to go to university, [and] that’s simply not right.

“So we want to make sure that there’s a high-quality apprenticeship in every career, [and] that’s what we’re doing, [putting] more money behind them. Their plans will halve the number of apprenticeships.”


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