PM pledges to swap 'rip-off' degrees for apprenticeships

University students graduating
[Getty Images]

The Conservatives have promised to scrap some university courses in England to help fund 100,000 apprenticeships per year if they win the July election.

The party says it would replace the "worst performing" degrees that it considers a "rip-off" because of high drop-out rates and "poor" job prospects.

Labour criticised the government over a decline in the number of new apprentices.

It said it would prioritise "gearing" apprenticeships towards young people.

The Liberal Democrats said the government had treated apprentices like "second-class workers".

The Conservatives said former Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair's ambition to get half of young people going to university had "led to low-value degrees ballooning".

In England, the Office for Students can already investigate and sanction a university - for example with fines - if it falls below certain standards.

The Conservatives say they would introduce a new law allowing the independent regulator to go further and completely close the poorest performing university courses.

They would be determined by drop-out rates, job progression and future earnings potential, according to a press release.

This is not the first time Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has pledged to "crack down on rip-off university courses".

Last July, the government announced plans to ask the OfS to cap student numbers on courses that were "failing to deliver good outcomes for students".

The Conservative Party estimated that the government would save £910m by 2030, if it scrapped courses that taught 13% of students.

It said this was because the taxpayer “offsets” student loans when graduates do not earn enough money to pay them back. The logic here is that removing courses that lead to lower earnings would result in less unpaid debt.

The party's calculations are based on the assumption that 75% of the students who would have enrolled on those courses would go into employment or apprenticeships instead.

However, there is no limit on the overall number of students universities in England can admit - so universities could recruit students onto other degree courses if some were closed.

The Conservatives said its savings would allow the government to spend £885m on creating 100,000 more apprentices per year by the end of the next parliament.

Rachel Hewitt, chief executive at MillionPlus, the Association for Modern Universities, said that while apprenticeships are an important part of the skills landscape, they did not need to be pitted in opposition to higher education.

"Modern universities across the country already deliver excellent degree apprenticeships which combine degree level study and industry experience, meaning students can earn as they learn," she added.

Labour's shadow education secretary Bridget Phillipson said the announcement was "laughable" because the Conservatives had "presided over a halving of apprenticeships for young people".

She reiterated her party's promises to introduce technical excellence colleges aimed at training workers for local industries, and to reform the apprenticeship levy into a "growth and skills levy", which the party says would allow businesses to spend up to half of their levy payments on "more flexible training courses".

Munira Wilson, education spokeswoman for the Liberal Democrats, said the Conservatives had "broken the apprenticeship system" and "urgent reform is needed".

"The shockingly low pay for those on apprenticeships will remain, doing nothing to encourage more people to take apprenticeships up or tackle soaring drop out rates," she said.

There are no UK-wide figures for the number of apprentices, but the number has fallen over time in England.

The number of new apprentices fell from 509,400 in 2015/16 to 321,400 in 2020/21. It has risen slightly since the pandemic, reaching 337,100 in 2022/23.

The government has said it wants more young people to start apprenticeships. Last year, 23% of new apprentices were under 19.

Overall, the number of young people starting apprenticeships fell from 131,400 in 2015/16 to 65,200 in 2020/21, rising to 77,700 in 2022/23.

Drop-out rates in England are around one in two.

Just over half (53.4%) of apprentices completed and passed a final assessment in 2021/22 - well below the government's 67% target by the end of 2024/25.

If you are under 19, or if you are 19 or older but in the first year of your apprenticeship, you are entitled to the apprentice rate, £6.40 per hour.

Otherwise, you will earn at least minimum wage.