Robert Halfon is MP for Harlow, a former Conservative Party Deputy Chairman, Chair of the Education Select Committee and President of Conservative Workers and Trade Unionists.
Social justice and skills have been my compass since entering politics. It is for that reason I have been vocal in my defence of the Open University (OU) in recent weeks, including in my last ConservativeHome column.
Our higher education sector is one of this country’s greatest strengths, but fees have increased and maintenance support is falling. At a time when students and industries seek options other than the traditional three-year, full-time degree, studying flexibly is becoming less and less feasible.
Today, I wanted to build on my last column and write about what we need to do to get out of this logjam. It involves my two favourite words in the English language: degree apprenticeships.
Degree Apprenticeships are the key to fighting social injustice in higher education and boosting Britain’s productivity. Students earn as they learn, do not incur mountains of debt, and get good quality jobs at the end. Following its tradition of flexible learning, the OU has embraced the apprenticeship revolution. Outside of the OU and in traditional universities, degree apprenticeships are slowly beginning to take off. Cambridge has announced that it will roll them out this September. Coventry, Nottingham Trent and Sheffield Hallam are all expanding their provision.
Against a backdrop of increasing difficulty to study flexibly, degree apprenticeships are growing in popularity – but how do we make sure the system meets demand?
Three things need to happen in higher education to allow people the flexible study they want.
First, our universities must diversify and modernise their provision. More Russell Group and ‘elite’ universities must make these places available. I would like to see the Government making it easier for universities to expand their degree apprenticeship provision. The process for approving degree apprenticeship standards must be quicker and smoother as the sector becomes more involved.
We should hold the ‘elite’ universities properly to account for the numbers of disadvantaged students they admit – and the support these students receive whilst studying.
Perhaps we should regard universities as ‘elite’ only if they are providing a real ladder of opportunity to the disadvantaged (which degree apprenticeships provide) – and maybe universities should only be seen as ‘the best’ when they lead their students to well-paid job destinations and reduce Britain’s skills deficit (which degree apprenticeships help to achieve).
The new Office for Students must lead in this. There must be sanctions from the new regulator for those universities who are failing in this regard.
Second, it’s vital that the places on degree apprenticeships that do open up are flexible. Apprentices must be able to ‘hop on and off’, transferring modules and ‘bank’ their learning. Doing this will help make degree apprenticeships more available to the less advantaged, as well as older students who wish to study in a more flexible way.
Finally, we need to improve careers and guidance.
I have heard time and time again that students in schools and further education colleges are not getting the support and advice they need to make an informed choice. Too often, we find that young people don’t know about degree apprenticeships and have instead fallen into – and drop out of – courses that they’re not interested in. The application process must be as simple as it is to apply through UCAS at the moment. In fact, I have been calling for a UCAS- style process for FE and skills for a long time. Making this a reality is key to helping more students into apprenticeships.
On this note, not only do students need more information, but we should educate parents and employers too. Few parents 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.
I mentioned productivity at the beginning of this article. Degree apprenticeships are a vital tool in meeting the UK’s skills deficit. The problem is clear: the UK lags behind most of its counterparts, with workers in the UK producing less in each hour they work than those in the US, Germany or France. In fact, 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.
The Fourth Industrial Revolution promises to dramatically improve our productivity, but we are told that a third of jobs could become obsolete over the next 20 years. There will be fewer and fewer low-skilled jobs to go around, so we have to do something about it now. Our universities can respond to these challenges by upping their degree apprenticeship provision and help to prepare students, young and older, for the changes ahead.
Degree apprenticeships will allow more people – especially those who have the most to lose from the Fourth Industrial Revolution – to climb the ladder of opportunity. Degree apprenticeships will allow them to get the education, skills and training they deserve, to achieve the jobs, security and prosperity, they and our country need.