Tory pledge to axe ‘rip-off’ degrees could ‘run down and undermine’ universities

Tory pledge to axe ‘rip-off’ degrees could ‘run down and undermine’ universities

The Conservatives’ pledge to shut down some degree courses to help fund more apprenticeships is “frustrating” and “self-defeating”, university chiefs have said.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has promised to create 100,000 more apprenticeships a year by axing some “rip-off” university degrees if the Tories stay in power after the General Election.

University leaders have warned the policy could “run down and undermine” the higher education sector and deter people from studying for degrees.

Vivienne Stern, chief executive of Universities UK (UUK), which represents vice-chancellors at 142 universities, said she was “fed up of people talking down universities”.

In a post on the Conservative Party’s pledge on X, formerly Twitter, Ms Stern said: “I just don’t get the determination to put people off going to university.

“This is especially frustrating when it is driven by people who have degrees (Gillian Keegan has two). Generally it is other people’s kids they don’t want to go.

“Finally, Rishi Sunak keeps saying he is fed up of people talking down Britain. Well, I am fed up of people talking down universities – which are one of the things the UK can be genuinely proud of.”

The Prime Minister said a regulator would look at the progression and drop-out rates of university courses, as well their future earnings potential, to determine whether they are underperforming.

Speaking at a train depot in Cornwall on Wednesday, Mr Sunak said: “I’m not someone who believes that you have to go to university, and all the apprentices I’ve been talking to this morning are proof of that, describing it as the best decision they ever made.

“And what we do know is that there are university degrees that are letting young people down.”

Despite being asked to name a specific example of an underperforming degree, the Prime Minister did not do so.

Rachel Hewitt, chief executive of the MillionPlus group of universities, said: “Apprenticeships are an important part of the skills landscape. However, pitting them in opposition to higher education is self-defeating.

“Modern universities across the country already deliver excellent degree apprenticeships which combine degree-level study and industry experience, meaning students can earn as they learn.”

She added: “Instead of seeking to run down and undermine Britain’s world-leading university sector at every turn, the Conservative Party should focus on policies that would help these institutions boost skills, social mobility and businesses to the betterment of Britain.”

The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) said funding 100,000 more apprenticeships a year through a “crackdown” on degree courses would be challenging.

It is “unclear” whether savings from scrapping “low-value” courses would be large enough to fund the Tories’ expansion plan of apprenticeships – which could cost around £900 million each year – as students could still switch to other higher education courses rather than apprenticeships, the IFS said.

Jo Grady, general secretary of the University and College Union (UCU), said: “Higher education provides a ladder of opportunity to working-class communities, so it is no wonder the Conservative Party continues to attack it.”

She added: “We need an end to Tory MPs playing politics with further and higher education, and sustainable funding for the whole sector.”