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  1. Election 2024
29 May 2024

The Tories are waging war on students

Who on the Tory front bench would want their children to eschew university in favour of apprenticeships?

By Rachel Cunliffe

In an election campaign that has already introduced the prospect of national service for teenagers and diverted yet more cash to already protected pensioners, perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise that the Conservatives have now taken aim at students.

Today’s big Tory plan is 100,000 new apprenticeships, to be paid for by slashing one in eight university degree places.

The higher education sector is a mess. Students leave with eye-watering amounts of debt (thanks to the tuition fee increase and – crucially – punitive interest rates set by the Conservatives when they were in coalition in 2012). And this investment doesn’t always pay off: as the Tory campaign team has pointed out, one in five graduates would be financially better off if they had never gone to university (in large part because of the vast amount of debt they need to take on).

Cracking down on “Mickey Mouse” degree courses that don’t offer value for money has been a Tory preoccupation for some time. Two years ago I interviewed the then-universities minister Michelle Donelan (yes, that’s the same Michelle Donelan who got the taxpayer to foot her £34,000 libel bill after making defamatory statements about an academic). She was on a crusade, telling me university applicants were “almost being conned” on to low-quality degrees. When we spoke, the Office for Students (founded in 2018) was in the process of launching investigations into eight institutions where there were accusations of poor-quality learning.

But these eight were in the minority. As Vivienne Stern, chief executive of Universities UK, was quick to point out, the Office for Students is not concerned about the great majority of courses. Just one per cent of students are registered with providers falling below expectations.

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There is a big difference between trying to ensure standards across the higher education sector to prevent young people from being ripped off, and preventing one in eight of them from going to university altogether – including at institutions which the government’s own regulator approves of.

Today’s talk of using the extra cash to fund apprenticeships has some other fairly massive holes in it. For a start, it could result in 130,000 fewer university places – to fund 100,000 apprenticeships. It is unclear what will happen to the unlucky 30,000 young people accepted on to neither a university course nor an apprenticeship (perhaps they’ll have joined the army after being inspired by their stint in national service). Also unclear is what happens to degree apprenticeships (where students earn a degree alongside a paid apprenticeship), which are taught at universities. And the main barrier to creating more apprenticeships isn’t too many university places – it’s the lack of employers willing to offer them.

And all of this is before we even begin to consider the higher education sector’s nightmarish financial outlook. There is a reason Sue Gray, Keir Starmer’s chief of staff, has put universities going bankrupt on her “shit list” of policy emergencies an incoming Labour government would have to tackle.

We have to turn to the perennial question of the Tory campaign: who is this policy even for? It’s obviously not for students or those of student age. They aren’t going to vote Tory anyway (just eight per cent of 18- to 24-year-olds say they would vote Conservative). It’s not for taxpayers, given the Treasury on average makes a profit on graduates due to higher tax intake. So is it a policy for the core Tory base of retired people who either had their own university degrees fully funded by the state or didn’t go at all and don’t see why anyone else should? Or is it for parents, who don’t want to see their children “conned” into low-quality degrees?

If it’s the former, it’s hard to see how this will get any cut-through – much better to stick with more pension giveaways. And if it’s parents who are being targeted, the Tory party has come a long way from the aspirational days of David Cameron, who wanted to expand university provision.

Donelan – who as universities minister told me that “higher education is not always the best route, depending on what you want to achieve”, and referred to university expansion to low-income pupils as “lazy social mobility” – has a degree in history and politics. She was the first in her family to go to university, made possible in part because tuition fees were a fraction of what they are now – £1,000 a year. Gillian Keegan, the Education Secretary who has made much of the fact that she herself did an apprenticeship, also has two degrees – one in business studies and one in strategy and leadership (both are courses that a harsh and cynical university critic might be tempted to bracket in the “Mickey Mouse” section).

Most MPs in the last parliament – 85 per cent – have degrees. How many of those on the Tory front bench encourage their own children to eschew university in favour of apprenticeships? If the number were high, surely we’d be hearing them talk about it. Come to that, how would Rishi Sunak feel if his daughters decided they didn’t think university was worth it? Has anyone asked him?

There are important conversations to have about what the university sector is for, if it provides value for money for students, and whether it can be funded more sustainably. Lots of graduates evidently feel they are getting a bad deal, while many universities are on the brink of ruin, desperately recruiting lucrative overseas students (for as long as they’re allowed) to help plug the gap in their finances.

But what this policy proposal says to millions of parents is: “We’re going to make it harder for your children to go to university.” It is an unconvincing campaign message.

[See also: The wrench of standing down as an MP – my dream job since childhood]

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