Rishi Sunak vows to replace 'rip-off' degrees with 100,000 apprenticeships

The PM would not name the courses his party consider to be 'ripping off' young people. Credit: PA

Rishi Sunak is pledging to create 100,000 more apprenticeships a year by shutting down "rip-off degrees" as he carries on rolling out his policy platform for the election.

The prime minister wants to see the worst-performing university courses replaced with high-skilled apprenticeships if the Conservatives retain power.

He said his party is "offering our young people the employment opportunities and financial security they need to thrive" as he seeks to narrow Labour’s double-digit lead in the polls.

But Sir Keir Starmer’s party said the policy is "laughable" after the Tories "presided over a halving of apprenticeships for young people."

The National Union of Students said it was an "insult" to hard-working students for the Conservatives to suggest one in eight degrees are low quality.

Mr Sunak, who is campaigning in the South West on Wednesday, and his ministers would not name which degrees they considered to be a "rip-off" or are underperforming by their standards.

He said a new regulator would look at the progression and drop-out rates of university courses to determine whether they are underperforming.

The PM said although university is "great" it's not the only option, adding: "There are university degrees that are letting young people down. Independent studies say that around one in five people who are on degrees would have been financially better off not doing them, about one in three graduates are in non-graduate jobs.

“So actually we are better off providing those young people with the opportunity of a high-quality apprenticeship.

“The regulator will be given the powers to look at underperforming degrees, looking at the progression rates, the drop-out rates, the earnings of people on those degrees, and instead we will use that money to fund 100,000 new apprenticeships.”

The target of 100,000 extra apprenticeships would be reached by the end of the next parliament and backed by new funding, the Tories said, costing an estimated £885 million in 2029/30.

It added that with 40% of graduates forecast not to repay their loans in full, the taxpayer is stumping up £1 in every £4 that students borrow to go to university.

Stopping the poorest-performing higher education courses would generate savings of £910 million in 2029/30, the party projected.

The law would be changed to give England’s universities watchdog, the Office for Students, powers to close down courses deemed as underperforming, based on dropout rates, job progression and earnings potential.

Education Secretary Gillian Keegan said: “When Labour were in power they pushed an arbitrary target to get half of young people to university, creating a boom in low-quality degrees – leaving far too many students saddled with debt and little else."

Education Secretary Gillian Keegan said low quality degrees leave students saddled with debt and not much else. Credit: PA

An extra 5.8 million apprenticeships have been delivered under Conservative governments since 2010, with 340,000 starting in 2022/23, the Tories said.

But Labour pointed out that apprenticeship achievements among under-19s are down 50% since 2015/16, while starts have dropped by at least 30% in every English region.

Shadow Education Secretary Bridget Phillipson said: "Why on earth should parents and young people believe they’ll create training opportunities now, after 14 years of failing to deliver opportunities for young people and the skills needed to grow our economy?"

The National Union of Students said: "We are delighted to see the Conservatives recognise the value of apprenticeships, but to suggest that 1 in 8 degrees are low quality is an insult to the students who work hard to study them."The Conservatives' only offer to young people seems to be conscription and course cuts."

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She said Labour will create "a new generation of Technical Excellence Colleges" in partnership with employers and universities to boost skills.

Liberal Democrat education spokesperson Munira Wilson said: “The shockingly low pay for those on apprenticeships will remain, doing nothing to encourage more people to take apprenticeships up or tackle soaring dropout rates."

Mr Sunak on Tuesday insisted he had not given up on young people when he was challenged over the contrast between his election offer for pensioners and youngsters.

While state pensioners are being offered a tax break, the Prime Minister wants to introduce a new form of national service for 18-year-olds, which would see them join the armed forces or take part in public service volunteering over the course of a year.