Theresa May attacks 'outdated' attitudes to universities as she launches review of funding and courses

Gordon Rayner
Theresa May wants a shake-up of the university system - REUTERS

Theresa May will on Monday attack Britain’s “outdated attitude” to university education as she says too many people take degrees and are charged too much money for their courses.

The Prime Minister will suggest that snobbery towards vocational training has created a belief that it is “something for other people’s children” as she aims to create parity between academic and technical education for over-18s.

Announcing a review of tertiary education and university funding, Mrs May will admit that the current system of tuition fees is not working because the amount students pay for their courses bears no relation to the “cost or quality of their course”.

The year-long review will be asked to look at ways of reforming funding, with Damian Hinds, the Education Secretary, favouring cuts in fees for arts and social science courses which are the most profitable for universities but often deliver the least benefit to students.

Mrs May, who will unveil the plans at a speech in Derby, wants teenagers to be able to make “more effective choices” when they leave school rather than simply opting for academic subjects at university because they regard vocational training as second-class.

Damian Hinds, the Education Secretary, on the BBC's Andrew Marr Show Credit: Reuters

She will say a system of tertiary education “that works for all our young people” will require “equality of access to an academic university education which is not dependent on your background, and it means a much greater focus on the technical alternatives too”.

Mrs May will also say that: “For those young people who do not go on to academic study, the routes into further technical and vocational training today are hard to navigate, the standards across the sector are too varied and the funding available to support them is patchy.

“So now is the time to take action to create a system that is flexible enough to ensure that everyone gets the education that suits them.”

The Government-led review, supported by an independent, external chairman and panel, will also look at funding, with a graduate tax among the options open to consideration.

Whitehall sources said the review would be told that tuition fees must stay and that paying for university education must not come out of general taxation, but that every other option remains “on the table”.

Theresa May believes too much emphasis is placed on university degrees Credit: PA

Mrs May will say: “The competitive market between universities which the system of variable tuition fees envisaged has simply not emerged.

“All but a handful of universities charge the maximum possible fees for undergraduate courses. Three year courses remain the norm. And the level of fees charged do not relate to the cost or quality of the course. We now have one of the most expensive systems of university tuition in the world.”

The panel’s report will be published at an interim stage and the review will conclude in early 2019.

Mr Hinds said yesterday that he wanted universities to offer more two-year courses, more sandwich courses where students spend time in the workplace, and more “commuter courses” where they live at home to avoid the cost of student accommodation.

The minister said that future fees would be determined by “a combination of three things: the cost to put it on, the benefit to the student and benefit to our country and our economy”.

Mr Hinds, who was appointed in last month’s reshuffle, also said he wanted to expand existing grammar schools, but he told the BBC’s Andrew Marr that he did not favour building any new grammars.

Meanwhile Sam Gyimah, the universities minister, said students should be given compensation if forthcoming lecturers’ strikes disrupt their studies. He said students have “consumer rights” which should include compensation if they do not receive something they have paid for.