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Skills, skills and degree apprenticeships – a review of Conservative Party Conference

  • 6 October 2023
  • By Josh Freeman
  • This blog was authored by Josh Freeman, Policy Manager at HEPI.

There were only 22,060 degree apprentice starts in 2022/23 (of 560,000 students accepted through UCAS overall) – but if the 2023 Conservative Party Conference was your first foray into higher education, you wouldn’t know it. This was #CPC23, my first Tory Conference and a wonderfully hectic tour in search of the governing party’s higher education priorities.

As an indication of the mood on the ground, the word ‘skills’ appeared 93 times in the Conference Agenda, compared to just 37 for ‘university’ and a measly 6 for ‘higher education’. If I didn’t know at the beginning that Gillian Keegan, Secretary of State for Education, was Parliament’s first ever degree apprentice, I did by the end.

The headline was 80 seconds of Rishi Sunak’s headline speech, in which he called Labour’s target of 50% university attendance a ‘false dream’, claimed thousands were being ‘ripped-off’ by their degrees, and again extolled the virtues of apprenticeships. He was only a little more conciliatory than the Education Secretary had been the previous day, when she announced minimum service levels for universities in response to ongoing strikes. They might have started with minimum service levels for ministers, who were rumoured to be avoiding media interviews for fear of being asked about the future of HS2.

On the fringe, skills led the agenda. At an event sponsored by UCAS, HE Minister Rob Halfon trumpeted the success of Switzerland in achieving ‘parity of prestige’ between academic and vocational routes. It turns out that there are 680 apprenticeship qualifications, and thanks to the Baker Clause, school pupils must have exposure to vocational options before 18. Keegan and Halfon’s next step is extending degree apprenticeships to include teaching, helping teachers train more easily – which will be much needed, given all the extra English and Maths 16-19 year-olds will be doing.

The mission: get a minister responsible for higher education to say something nice about universities. This job ultimately fell to the impressive George Freeman, Minister in the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology (DSIT). At two events with Durham University and Imperial College London, he explained how DSIT is creating ‘digital cluster heatmaps’ to build a picture of intensive research and development. And he was clear – though it would have been difficult to say otherwise, given the events’ sponsors were on both panels alongside him – that the government did in fact value the research and development taking place in higher education institutions.

But Freeman also shared three things that ‘keep him awake at night’: whether government departments can move quickly enough in response to technological development; how to link up research with local skills needs; and the difficulties of improving the research environment when four devolved nations all have different policy landscapes. This came across as serious, down-to-earth thinking, especially compared to his boss, DSIT Secretary of State Michelle Donelan, who was caught up kicking ‘woke ideology’ out of science. Thankfully, Freeman appears to understand better the challenges faced by research-intensive institutions.

True, you would have to fill pages and pages to explore properly the opportunities and challenges faced by higher education institutions – so at HEPI we did just that, publishing the manifestos of three vice-chancellors to coincide with our Monday morning event, and will advance the discussion further with our event at the Labour Conference in Liverpool next week.

But I was left with three main takeaways from the conference. The first was that the search for the ‘governing party’s higher education priorities’ was harder than expected and did not seem to end at universities. Apprenticeships are often fantastic (whether or not they involve a degree) and it is vital we give young people workplace skills. But higher education institutions, which are central to the above, were rarely in the conversation.

The second was that education is more of a political dividing line than ever. At an event hosted by the Social Market Foundation, the University of Manchester’s Rob Ford showed how, since Brexit, a person’s level of education has become a significant predictor of voting intention: graduates tend to vote Labour, school leavers typically vote Conservative. In turn, political party appears to have become a significant predictor of a politician’s attitude to universities.

The third, however, was that some do have ambitious visions for young people. At a twilight event on Tuesday night, Miriam Cates, controversial Conservative rising star, advocated for abandoning the triple lock on pensions. If only we explain the importance of making tough choices, she argued, people will act altruistically for the good of their children and grandchildren. Sunak and his ministers have some long-term decisions to make – but they have their work cut out to give younger generations a brighter future.

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