Image: Flickr / The Conservative Party

Conservatives pledge to axe one in eight university courses, in ‘Mickey Mouse’ crackdown

The Conservative Party has pledged to scrap ‘Micky Mouse’ university courses in order to fund 100,000 apprenticeships, in its latest pledge ahead of the general election.

In a 28 May announcement, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak accused universities of “ripping young people off”, by offering degrees that do not guarantee high-earning job prospects.

His party has pledged to introduce a new law which would grant independent regulators the power to close the worst-performing university courses. This would be measured by considering job progression, future earning potential, and drop-out rates.

Thanks to our plan, apprenticeships are much higher quality than they were under Labour

Rishi Sunak, Prime Minister

The Conservatives have criticised the legacy of former Labour Prime Minister, Tony Blair, arguing that his pledge of getting half of young people into university caused a “ballooning” in low-value degrees.

Mr Sunak added: “Thanks to our plan, apprenticeships are much higher quality than they were under Labour.”

Estimates by the Conservative Party argue that £910 million could be saved by 2030 if one in every eight university courses was scrapped.

This money would arise from less unpaid student loan debt, currently offset by the taxpayer in instances where graduates cannot afford to pay them back. The Tories have claimed that £1 of every £4 borrowed by students is never paid back.

Jobs website Adzuna analysed the career pathways that graduates of different subjects commonly take after leaving university. It found photography degrees offered the worst value for money (£23,242), followed by translation (£24,581), criminology (£24,637), and fine art (£25,015).

There were expressions of support for the apprenticeship model following the announcement.

Gillian Keegan, the Education Secretary, said: “There are no limits to where an apprenticeship can take you. Mine took me from a car factory in Kirkby to the Cabinet.”

Aaryan Shabbir, a student on Birmingham City University (BCU)’s accelerated two-year digital marketing course, told the BBC that: “If I’d [known] more about apprenticeships, I would’ve done an apprenticeship.”

Other reactions, however, were more reserved. Professor David Mba, Vice-Chancellor of BCU, said the prospect of more apprenticeships was “great”, but not “at the expense of university courses.”

Sophia Crothall, who holds a BSc in Criminology and an MA in Cultural and Creative Industries, wrote in the Metro: “While I believe apprenticeships can provide young people with valuable, employable skills, and experience within the sector, they don’t offer a lot of the experiences that come with going to university.”

That war against universities will stop if there is a Labour government

Peter Kyle, Shadow Science Secretary

The Conservative figures have been attacked for their assumption that 75% of students on the scrapped courses would go straight into employment or apprenticeships.

Data shows that apprenticeships are unpopular amongst young people: 37,800 people started a degree apprenticeship in 2021-22, with 18- to 24-year-olds accounting for only 2,480 of these.

They have a high dropout rate in England: barely half (54.6%) of apprentices completed and passed their final assessment in 2022-23, below the government’s target of 67%.

Labour Party figures were critical of the policy announcement. Peter Kyle, the Shadow Science Secretary, accused Sunak of “talking down” British universities.

He added: “That war against universities will stop if there is a Labour government.”

Ben Rowland, Chief Executive of the Association of Employment and Learning Providers, said: “Whichever party finds itself in government, there will need to be a commitment to encouraging more employers [to] offer apprenticeship opportunities.”


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