The minister for higher and further education has told MPs she is considering offering universities financial incentives to expand provision of degree apprenticeships.
Michelle Donelan appeared before members of the House of Commons Education Select Committee for the first time in her beefed-up role covering universities, colleges and skills.
The minister discussed her plans for BTecs, social mobility and the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) bill.
Committee chairman Robert Halfon – who described degree apprenticeships as “two of his favourite words in the English language” – asked Ms Donelan to detail how she planned to achieve her ambition of expanding student numbers on the hybrid level six qualifications.
The minister confirmed she was “genuine[ly]” looking at financial incentives to encourage universities to offer more places.
She said the number of degree apprentices had increased 8% since the pandemic began – and were now available at 94 universities – but the figures were “not good enough”.
“I want every university to be holding degree apprenticeships,” she continued.
Ms Donelan said she was pursuing the recommendations of a recent review of degree apprenticeships by the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education, which backed reducing bureaucracy and a “clear brand” for the qualifications.
The Augar review
The parliamentary committee was held before the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, delivered his budget and the outcomes of the 2021 spending review. Documents published by the Treasury confirmed the government response to the review of post-18 education and funding, chaired by Philip Augar, would be published “in the coming weeks“.
Donelan told MPs that the Department for Education would “shortly” reveal its response to the Augar review. She would not “commit to an exact month” but reassured members the plan would be revealed “soon”.
Statistics prepared for MPs by the House of Commons library show that the value of outstanding tuition fee loans at the end of March 2021 reached £141 billion. The government forecasts the value of outstanding loans to be around £560 billion (2019‑20 prices) by the middle of this century. Currently, the government expects a quarter of graduates to repay their loans in full. The minister told MPs that the figures raise questions “about whether [degrees] are value for money for the state”.
The minister avoided answering several questions on social mobility, access and participation for white working-class boys and graduate outcomes, saying a more comprehensive government answer would accompany the response to the Augar review. A new Office for Students director for access and participation would, she said, enable the regulator “to really focus on some of these issues”. The minister said the OfS was working on new graduate outcomes data for degrees and providers – called Proceed – to help university applicants make informed choices about graduate salaries and employment chances.
Donelan pushed back on the accusation she was cutting the number of BTecs. “I would like to bust a myth here because I think the media has sold the story that we are abolishing all BTecs and there will be a binary choice between A-levels and T-levels, which is certainly not the direction of travel,” she said.
“We know that many BTecs produce excellent outcomes for young people and for people later on in life. However, there’s been various studies, including the Wolf review, which showed that some of them aren’t good enough quality.
“The FE landscape can be really confusing and we’ve heard that message loud and clear from employers. If we just as a government keep adding in extra stuff, it makes it even more confusing for employers, for parents for teachers. We want to simplify it so that everybody can gain from the system. There will be no gaps to individuals in terms of certain pathways.”
Freedom of speech
Donelan said the new OfS director for free speech and academic freedom would act as a “one-stop-shop…for students, staff and visiting speakers” that feel a university has curtailed their freedom of expression on campus. Approaching the director would be a “completely free” alternative to court, she explained.
Committee chair Halfon asked: “What support will be given to individuals, so they don’t have any costs if they feel that the free speech laws introduced by the government are not being adhered to?”
Donelan replied: “That’s why we’re introducing the process where they can go to the director, which will be the free route, that will be the main route… they will go to [the director for free speech and academic freedom]. They will investigate the situation, and they will have the powers to fine the university or even remove the registration condition from the university.”