Too many degree courses ‘not now delivering value’ – Boris Johnson

The prime minister has promised to refurbish the “neglected” further education sector

The government will invest more in further education, Boris Johnson has vowed today, as he questioned the value of many university degree courses.

In a major speech delivered at the Dudley College of Technology, the prime minister set out his plans to help the economy “bounce back better” after the Covid-19 pandemic.

While acknowledging the impressive Dudley college campus that hosted his press conference, Mr Johnson described the state of the FE sector as “dilapidated in many places” and in need of huge investment. The government’s blueprint for Britain includes a “vast £1.5 billion programme” of refurbishment for further education colleges.

Mr Johnson contrasted the “yawning gaps” between the higher education sector and the “neglected” FE sector, in a sign he would prioritise FE over HE in the coming parliament.

“It is one of the most extraordinary features of the UK – in so many ways the greatest place on earth – that we tolerate such yawning gaps between the best and the rest,” he said.

“We have umpteen fantastic, globally outstanding universities and yet too many degree courses are not now delivering value.”

We have umpteen fantastic, globally outstanding universities and yet too many degree courses are not now delivering value
– Boris Johnson

He said it was time the UK’s education system “recognised that talent and genius are expressed as much by hand and by eye as they are in a spreadsheet or an essay”. The prime minister has pledged that every “every young person the chance of an apprenticeship or an in-work placement” but has yet to announce the details or cost of his policy.

The prime minister also said more should be done to “level up” to access higher education: “I want to end the current injustice that means a pupil from a London state school is now 50% more likely to go to a top university than a pupil from the West Midlands; that is not only unjust, it is such a waste of human talent.”

‘Skills, skills, skills’

Over the next decade, universities should work towards a target of 50 percent of their students undertaking degree-level apprenticeships
– Robert Halfon, chair of the education select committee

Robert Halfon, MP for Harlow and Conservative chair of the education select committee, gave a speech today that mirrored his party leader’s focus on FE.

Mr Halfon said there needed to be a focus on “skills, skills, skills”.

Too many degree courses 'not now delivering value' – Boris Johnson Robert Halfon
Mr Halfon wants more students at universities to study degree apprenticeships.

“With evangelisation from the prime minister, with detailed policy worked through by the government, think tanks and pressure groups, we must be able to come up with a really exciting apprenticeship offer for young people,” he said.

Mr Halfon appeared to deliberately misquote the former prime minister Tony Blair in his speech when he said: “It was not so long ago that Tony Blair talked about ‘university, university, university’ and achieved the target of 50% of students going to higher education. Surely, the same can be the case if we have a real will for apprenticeships, with our battle cry: ‘Skills, skills, skills’.”

When he launched Labour’s manifesto in 1997, Mr Blair actually described his government’s priorities as “education, education, education”.

The MP for Harlow said the government should cut red tape, offer employers financial support to employ apprentices, radically expand degree apprenticeships, reform the apprenticeship levy and set public bodies higher targets for recruiting and employing apprentices.

Mr Halfon also wants universities to “work towards a target of 50% of their students undertaking degree-level apprenticeships” by 2030.

The number of students taking traditional undergraduate degrees dwarf the number taking degree apprenticeships; 22,500 students started higher level apprenticeships in England in 2018/19, of which 3,400 were degree apprenticeships. In contrast, more than 475,000 students in England started undergraduate degrees in that same year. Boris Johnson

Read more: Degree apprenticeships: reform them for the sake of social mobility, says Sutton Trust

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