Robert Halfon: Use university subsidies to promote apprenticeships and beat rise of the robots

Should higher education be reformed and made more relevant to today's economic needs?
Should higher education be reformed and made more relevant to today's economic needs?
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OVER the last few years, major progress has been made in improving our education system. The number of young people in good or outstanding schools has risen by nearly two million in less than a decade, while there are fewer qualifications that hold no real currency with employers. We also have some of the best universities in the world.

There is more to do, however, to build an even brighter future and to do this we must spark a skills revolution by transforming the way in which we view education.

Currently, there is a skills problem, with more than a third of workers in England not holding suitable qualifications for the jobs they do and around nine million of all working aged adults in England having 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-to-19-year olds having low basic skills.

Young people also face the risk of the march of the robots as 28 per cent of jobs taken by 16-to-24-year-olds could be at risk of automation by the 2030s.
Only around five per cent of young people are working in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, areas that are most resistant to the risk.

We truly have a Nightmare on Skills Street.

This lack of skills in society touches us all but it is the most disadvantaged who pay the highest price.

Without a solid nucleus of skills, they can’t thrive in the jobs market and instead slip in to a concoction of wage stagnation, fading hope and inertia.

The higher education sector has a key role to play in turning this around and boosting the level of skills in our country and ending this social injustice.

We have become obsessed with full academic degrees in this country and have created a higher education system that favours academic degrees, while intermediate and higher technical offerings are comparatively tiny.

The labour market does not need an ever-growing supply of academic degrees – there are not the jobs available and for many graduates the return on their investment is paltry.

There is now an enormous opportunity to rebalance higher education and we must urgently redirect some of the public funding universities receive towards courses and degrees that have a technical focus.

By doing this, we would end the divide between technical and academic education. They can and 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 good quality jobs at the end. They also help us meet our skills deficit, so they benefit society too.

More universities need to be offering these apprenticeships. There are currently just 11,600 degree apprenticeships. I hope that one day, half of all university students will be doing them.

The Government needs to incentivise their growth. One way to do this would be to ringfence some of the enormous public subsidy that still goes to universities, so that universities can only draw down on this protected funding stream if they offer degree apprenticeships.

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.

There also needs to be more transparency about the return that degree courses will bring, with more emphasis on teaching quality and employability and less on research excellence.

It’s only right that universities are held accountable for the extent to which they prepare students for the world of work and a league table for universities placing more weight on teaching quality and employability would be a welcome step.

We must also make it easier for people to learn flexibly throughout their lives, through supporting learning through the flexible earn and learn sector 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. For that to happen, we must craft a more fluid and balanced system and build excellence all along the way.

Robert Halfon MP is Chair of the Education Select Committee.