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4 March 2018

Why the obsession with academic degrees in this country must end

The chair of the Education Select Committee wants to see a better balance between academic and technical qualifications.

By Robert Halfon

Huge progress has been made in improving our education system over the last few years. The number of young people in good or outstanding schools has risen by nearly two million in less than a decade, we are moving towards a system of technical qualifications which are genuinely valued by employers, and several of our universities are among the best in the world. This is not, however, a time for complacency and we must address our skills shortage in this country by changing the way we view education and sparking a revolution in the higher education sector.

More than a third of workers in England do not hold suitable qualifications for the jobs they do and around nine million of all working aged adults in England have low basic skills. Meanwhile, an enormous wave of lost opportunity is about to come crashing down on the next generation of employees, with a third of England’s 16-19-year-olds having low basic skills. Twenty-eight per cent of jobs taken by 16-24 year olds could be at risk of automation by the 2030s and only around five per cent of young people are working in STEM, the area most resistant to the risk. This lack of skills in our society affects us all, but it is the most disadvantaged who pay the highest price by slipping into a concoction of wage stagnation, fading hope and inertia.

Skills are a route up the ladder of opportunity, with 25 per cent of apprentices coming from the most disadvantaged fifth of areas. Now is the time for a radical overhaul of higher education to boost the level of skills in this country, end social injustice and help the most disadvantaged climb the educational ladder of opportunity.

The Education Select Committee is currently conducting an inquiry into value for money in higher education and our findings will feed in to this debate. While the pay packets of some vice-chancellors have been making the headlines, we are also interested in issues such as the use of graduate outcomes data, support for disadvantaged students and the quality of teaching across institutions. There needs to be far more transparency about the returns that degree courses will bring, with more emphasis on teaching quality and employability.

The current obsession with full academic degrees in this country must end. There are just not the jobs available for the graduates and the return on investment for some of these students is paltry. Instead, we should rebalance higher education and redirect some of the public funding universities receive to those courses with a technical focus.

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No longer should there be a divide between technical and academic education and there must be closer links between further and higher education. They should be seen as intertwined – two parts of the same system of self-improvement and both equally well supported.

Degree apprenticeships are a remarkable example of a vehicle that blends the two together and could be the crown jewel in a revamped technical offering. Students earn as they learn, they do not incur mountains of debt, and they get high-quality jobs at the end. They also help us meet our skills deficit, so they benefit society too.

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More universities should follow the recent example set by the University of Cambridge and offer these apprenticeships. There are currently just 11,600 degree apprenticeships. I hope that one day, half of all students will be studying them. However, this is not just an issue of supply. Few families are aware of degree apprenticeships, especially from disadvantaged families where the returns could be most profound. Both the existence of apprenticeships and the value they bring should be hard-wired into careers advice.

The government must now do more to incentivise the growth of degree apprenticeships and the review of higher education funding announced by the Prime Minister is an ideal opportunity for action. Theresa May is right that the attitude that a full university degree is the only desirable route for young people is outdated and the government should now take the opportunity to do all it can to incentivise more skills-based courses and technical offerings.

If there is the opportunity to reduce tuition fees then we should use it to encourage the take up of courses in developing the skills that we need – from science and technology to healthcare and coding. All financial incentives should be geared towards encouraging those building up our skills base, something that will also benefit students in the long run.

It’s only right that universities are held accountable for the extent to which they prepare students for the world of work. We must also make it easier for people to learn flexibly throughout their lives, through supporting learning through the flexible earn and learn sector, and institutions such as the Open University.

Good education is the high-speed train that propels social justice. But it needs a proper line. And a series of stops that lead to thriving, dynamic places of opportunity. Not deserted platforms and decaying stations.

For that to happen, we must craft a more fluid and balanced system and we must build excellence all along the way. Higher education should be about employability, skills and helping the disadvantaged climb the ladder of opportunity every step of the way.

Robert Halfon MP is chair of the Education Select Committee.