End the ‘obsession’ with academic degrees, says senior Tory

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The higher education system in England needs to end its obsession with academic degrees and concentrate more on technical training, a senior Conservative MP is warning.

Rob Halfon, chairman of the Commons Education Committee, will argue that while many university graduates received “paltry returns” for their outlay, the country is suffering a skills shortage.

In a speech to the Centre for Social Justice think tank on Monday, he will call for a radical “rebalancing” of the whole system to address the needs of students and employers.

“We are creating a higher education system that overwhelmingly 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.”

Mr Halfon will point out that currently between a fifth and a third of graduates end up taking non-graduate jobs with the “graduate premium” varying “wildly” according to course and institution.

He will call for a major expansion of degree apprenticeships, where students earn as they learn without incurring “mountains of debt”, while arguing that those universities which do not provide a good return on academic courses should reinvent themselves as centres of technical excellence.

He will say that if the country is to continue to “lavishly furnish universities with taxpayers’ money”, there needs to be greater transparency about the returns that students can expect.

“The way we recognise universities is all wrong. We place far too much emphasis on research excellence, and not enough on teaching quality and employability,” he will say.

“Universities are an integral part of the machinery that feeds into the jobs market. It is reasonable to hold them accountable for the extent to which they prepare students for the world of work.”

Of the 59 higher education providers that received a gold standard in the Government’s teaching excellence framework, he will point out that 51 were not in the “elite” Russell Group of universities.

When it came to The Economist’s “value-added” university rankings, which compares graduates’ wages with what they would have been expected to earn if they had not gone to that university, the list was topped by Portsmouth University followed by Aston University, neither of which are in the Russell Group.

“While some Russell Group universities deserve their recognition as elite institutions, others appear to trade well on their brands, while their less reputable counterparts remain unrecognised,” Mr Halfon will say.

A Department for Education spokesman said: “The government wants everyone to be equipped with the skills they need to get on in life and succeed in the jobs of the future.

“That’s why we are overhauling the technical and further education sectors, working with employers to improve the quality of apprenticeships as well as to increase their take-up, and investing £500m a year in new T levels.

“We have also introduced legislation to reform higher education, including the introduction of a new regulator, the Office for Students, to ensure that students and the taxpayer get the value for money they deserve.”

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