Robert Halfon makes first keynote speech as minister for skills, apprentices and higher education

News / Sat 19th Nov 2022 at 02:36pm

HARLOW MP Robert Halfon has made his first keynote address in his capacity as Minister for Skills, Apprentices and Higher Education.

The speech was made at an event organised by the Times Higher Education.

Mr Halfon said: “Good morning and thank you, John, for that introduction. Times Higher Education is the voice of higher education and that’s why I chose to make this my first speech on higher education.

I wanted to talk to you today about how universities can best serve students to achieve their potential, and what we’re doing to safeguard higher education’s excellent reputation.

I was profoundly depressed by the recent row regarding Oxbridge and private schools, which preoccupied the media. Every student that gets into Oxbridge is a wonderful thing, particularly if they are disadvantaged. But this really is dancing on the head of a pin.

Look – I like old stone and dreaming spires as much as the next Tolkienist attending the Oxonmoot at St Anne’s College, as I try to do each year.

But there are fine universities up and down the land that disadvantaged students would give their eyeteeth to get into.

What argument do we want to have? Is it really which students get into Oxbridge?

Or whether all our higher education institutions meet the needs of young people, who rely on them for their future employability and prosperity?

As you know, we boast 4 universities in the world top 10 and 17 in the top 100. But our success in higher Education should also be measured by the large proportion of graduates who work in skilled jobs that are vital for the UK economy – manufacturing, energy, construction, and in the delivery of public services like health, education and social care. More than a third of graduates worked in these sectors five years after completing their courses.

I believe the point of university – as a student – is to grow your intellect, gain skills and knowledge, and get a good, skilled job at the end.

I went to Exeter – a wonderful university. It was the greatest time of my life. But that was in a different era, when degrees were funded by the taxpayer.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution has already created new jobs and rendered others obsolete. It demands specific technical skills from the upcoming workforce. The CBI tells us 79% of businesses expect to increase their number of higher-skilled roles. We lag behind many countries in producing work-ready candidates with the qualifications to match these jobs. Continuing on this path would be to let down the young people who invest their time and future earnings in higher education – who expect to enter good jobs when they graduate.

With more people than ever going to university, our system must be fair to students, supporting them and providing a return on their investment. It must also be fair to taxpayers, who front-up the money. We need to enable lifelong learning, equipping students to reach their potential throughout their working lives.

I believe 21st century universities should have three main purposes:

  • meeting the skills needs of the economy
  • providing quality qualifications that lead to well-paid jobs
  • advancing social justice by helping disadvantaged applicants onto the first rung of the ladder of opportunity.

I also want to talk about what the student experience should be.

Let’s look first at the skills gap I’ve identified. Only 10% of adults aged 20-45 hold a Higher Technical Qualification as their highest qualification, compared to around 20% in Germany, and as many as 34% in Canada.

This gap can be met by boosting apprenticeships, particularly degree apprenticeships, and turbo-charging Higher Technical Qualifications. This government has already begun a skills revolution by investing £3.8 billion over this parliament.

And last year we announced that from 2023, access to student finance will be extended to those studying Higher Technical Qualifications (HTQs). This will allow part-time HTQ students to apply for maintenance loans, giving them parity with undergraduates.

The number of degree-level apprenticeships has increased by over 10% compared to the previous year, to 37,800 in 2021/22.

I would like to ensure that we rocket boost degree apprenticeships, especially for young people.

The proudest moment of my life was being asked to speak at my alma mater, as Exeter awarded their first degree apprenticeships alongside bachelor’s degrees. Other universities like Staffordshire and Coventry already offer extensive degree apprenticeship programmes.

If your university does not offer a single degree apprenticeship, you should ask yourself ‘Why?’

Let’s end the social apartheid between academic and technical education. This will only happen when technical qualifications are talked of in the same breath as academic ones.

In the 21st century, we must consider graduates’ employability. And what they can return to the economy – and the taxpayer – that has supported them. Technical and vocational courses offer students a route to career progress, up the ladder of opportunity.

In 2014 for every pound invested in degree level learning, there was a £31.47 return to the economy.

So what does good look like?

A number of universities brilliantly serve the skills need I’ve outlined, diversifying their offer and responding to the needs of businesses. I talked about Nottingham Trent so much they awarded me an Honorary Professorship. So to avoid obvious bias, I’ll name some others.

Manchester Metropolitan have had over 2,500 starts since their degree apprenticeship programme began in 2015. They’ve partnered with 544 employers – such as AstraZeneca, United Utilities and IBM. Newcastle University launched their digital Higher Technical Qualification in September, in collaboration with the North East Institute of Technology – a great example of a university working closely with further education providers. Next year, they’ll offer Construction and Health & Science HTQs, responding to demand from local employers.

But it is not all about serving employment and the economy. It must be about value for money too. Universities have a contract with students to provide quality teaching. In the past a minority have got away with poor provision, relying on the higher educations’ great reputation. We take this seriously, and have asked the Office for Students to investigate concerns about quality of provision, including where there might be over-reliance on virtual learning.

An important measure of degree quality is what it enables graduates to do next. In September the OfS announced new minimum thresholds for course continuation and completion, as well as rates of progression to graduate employment or further study. For full-time undergraduates taking their first degree, a minimum of 75% should complete their qualification. A minimum of 60% should go on to professional employment or further study within fifteen months of graduating.

Institutions that continue to uphold their high standards have nothing to fear from these thresholds.

But for those students who discover, once enrolled, that their course is not worth the huge outlay, the outcomes are devastating. They are out-of-pocket, with nothing to show for their investment.

We owe it to every student who puts their faith in higher education to ensure that they receive value for money – so that they can continue to progress in their lives and careers, climbing-up that ladder of opportunity.

I want to thank you all for your incredible efforts to support students during the extraordinary upheaval of COVID-19. As we return to pre-pandemic grading for GCSE and A levels, we must do everything we can to support the class of 2023 in their next steps, whether in university, other studies, training or employment.

More disadvantaged 18-year-olds than ever secured a university place this year. 50% of ethnic minority 18-year-olds entered higher education last year, up from 32% in 2010. It good that the statistics are moving in the right direction – but the job is by no means done.

The reason I believe in degree apprenticeships is because they are the ladder of opportunity for disadvantaged young people. We need to work harder to ensure students’ backgrounds don’t determine their post-16 options. Everyone should get on the course that is right for them – whether that is a degree, an apprenticeship or Higher Technical Qualification. And schools and colleges shouldn’t have to do all the heavy lifting to deliver ‘oven-ready’ students to universities. All of higher education must play a role in levelling-up opportunities for all.

I know you are on-side with this. And I would like to thank you for your engagement with the Access and Participation Plan variations exercise, launched by the Office for Students in the spring. That showed providers’ readiness to go further in improving equality of opportunity, which I’m pleased to recognise. More importantly, it is strengthening ties between universities and schools, in a joint effort to raise attainment and standards.

In future, providers need to offer students a more diverse range of high-quality options, including vocational and technical routes.

We need universities to be focused on helping us rebuild the economy. Real social justice is about closing our skills gap and helping students into good jobs – not the decolonising nonsense that we see in the media.

I am glad the Office for Students has said that it does not support this.

Disadvantaged students in England are 3.8 percentage points more likely to drop out of university compared with their better-heeled counterparts. Where they do stay the course, they don’t always get a good degree – worthy of the effort they’ve put in or the debt they’ve accrued. These students are 8.6 percentage points less likely to achieve a good degree than their more privileged peers. There were also around two thirds fewer entrants to part-time undergraduate study in England in 2020-21, compared to 2009-10, which I want to address.

We have a moral obligation to intervene on disadvantaged students’ behalf, to level the playing field – both in welcoming them to university, and ensuring they receive the support they need on campus.

Social justice means giving everyone the chance to climb the ladder of opportunity, whatever their background.

Finally, I want to talk about what students should expect after enrolment.

Now more than ever, we want pastoral support at university to be fit-for-purpose. That’s why we recently appointed Professor Edward Peck as our Student Support Champion. Last week I asked him to work with families of students who’ve tragically lost their lives to suicide, and consider the careers advice universities provide. I know Professor Peck will be a brilliant advocate for students.

Pandemics apart, face-to-face learning is the natural expectation for students on most university courses. The great exception is the Open University, which has been addressing disadvantage and our skills deficit through online degree apprenticeships.

We’ve been clear that face-to-face teaching should be back to pre-pandemic levels. I want to ensure that students get the experience they rightly expect at university, which is why I’ve asked the OfS to look into this issue. Our teaching quality should be second to none.

People often describe traditional universities as ‘the elite’. To me, an elite institution is one that delivers for its students in the ways I’ve described: skills, jobs and social justice.

That’s why I regard institutions like IoTs and those involved in the rollout of Higher Technical Qualifications – like Nottingham Trent, Birmingham City and Open Universities – as trailblazers for a newly prestigious technical education, just as some consider Oxbridge as elite providers of academic study and research. An elite university prepares students to live full and rewarding lives, enabling them to make a valuable contribution to their communities and our economy.

I want to finish by thanking all the tutors, lecturers, researchers, support staff – and students – for your contribution to British universities’ success.

“We continue to face the challenges of recovering from Covid, and the impact of the devastating war in Ukraine. But by working together, British higher education can proudly uphold its reputation among the best in the world.

“I’ll be doing my utmost in this, and I know you will too.

“Thank you”.

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4 Comments for Robert Halfon makes first keynote speech as minister for skills, apprentices and higher education:

David Forman
2022-11-19 15:20:42

Robert Halfon makes a good point about trying to achieve parity of esteem between academic and technical qualifications. In particular, it is most welcome "that from 2023, access to student finance will be extended to those studying Higher Technical Qualifications (HTQs). This will allow part-time HTQ students to apply for maintenance loans, giving them parity with undergraduates."

2022-11-19 20:24:11

Glad Robert Halfon got that promotion - he certainly deserves it. I don't agree with everything he (as a Conservative) thinks but he could be like so many of his fellow MP's with more self-interest than 'the good for all'. If only more thought on the same lines we would all be better off. Too many politicians just can't be trusted.

2022-11-19 23:12:24

As RH is now a Minister, perhaps he could comment on the fact that the latest budget (that he backed) did not add VAT to private schools fees. This decision was justified by using data from a 2018 report by the Independent Schools Council lobby group. Adding VAT to private schools fees could have raised £1.7bn which could have been used to fund more teachers, but instead RH is backing privilege over the rest of us. Looks like private schools re another winner of this budget, as backed by RH.

gary roberts
2022-11-20 07:27:05

The mantra from the Conservatives is about skills being the key driver to restoring economic growth in this country. You get that, inter alia, by investing in the development of schools, colleges and universities. But it is also about the users of these bodies namely the students who have been short changed for many a decade sadly. That suggests that many of our brightest and best students decide to forestall their learning because of perceived debt and lack of teacher involvement in their learning. That is why in many areas of this country there is a lack of teachers, nurses, and doctors with the problem growing with a record number of vacancies in all of those professions. Therefore, I would suggest to all those politicians who talk a good game but very rarely do anything useful about them to have a no student fees policy in all academic subjects and in all educational bodies and institutions. That needs major investment in this country but sadly it will not happen which is disgraceful given that many politicians' in this country had all their educational fees and costs paid for by the state. It was a policy in both the Labour party's manifesto' of 2017 and 2019 but under Starmer has been filed in the bin and Mr. Halfon will never vote for it sadly and disgracefully!

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