29 May 2024

Tory MP says degrees like ‘contemporary circus skills’ should be scrapped


The Conservatives have been focusing on education policy, promising to target universities that are “ripping off” young people and drive a shift towards apprenticeships, with 100,000 new places by the end of the next parliament.

We spoke to the Conservative Party Chairman Richard Holden and  began by asking him to name some degree courses he thought were a rip-off.

Richard Holden: I saw one the other day for some contemporary circus skills, which I thought was probably not degree-level necessary. Not something that somebody needs to go away from home for three years to study and pay tens of thousands of pounds for, which if they don’t pay it back, then gets picked up by the taxpayer.

Cathy Newman: Where was this degree in circuses?

Richard Holden: I believe it was one of the new universities in the southwest. And it just really seems to me that when you’re looking at these things, I want young people to have as much opportunity as possible, wherever possible, to earn when they learn. I think there was an obsession from the Blair era of everybody going to do a formal three or four-year university degree. I don’t think that’s really sensible. When I talk to young people up in my constituency, and I’ve run several apprenticeship fairs up there, what they really want to do often is earn and learn at the same time.

Cathy Newman: But you’ve named one degree in the southwest. That doesn’t seem to me the basis for this whole policy.

Richard Holden: It isn’t the basis of this policy. That’s why I said there have been a lot of studies which show that, actually, with people going to university studying certain degrees, that they’re not getting what they thought they were getting, which is a route into a good graduate job afterwards.

Cathy Newman: But can you name any others? That’s what I’m after. You’ve cited one.

Richard Holden: There’s others we’ve heard about, like football studies. I can’t remember exactly where that is. But there’s a lot of these degrees which seem to be there, which aren’t delivering for people and actually could be far better catered for by doing a degree apprenticeship or an apprenticeship.

Cathy Newman: You just talked about football studies. The business of sport is one of the areas in which the UK excels. I don’t really buy that.

Richard Holden: It is. But you don’t need to buy it from me. You can listen to the academics who’ve looked into this in detail, looked across the piece, actually, various think tanks, various academic studies looking into different degrees, different universities. And this isn’t about targeting universities as a whole, or about targeting individual education establishments as a whole. What it is about saying is, what can we do better? What can we deliver better for young people, better for students in a way which actually helps them to get more out of life?

Cathy Newman: Let’s just look at how good the apprenticeships are. Businesses say the system is so broken that they’ve ended up handing back £3.5 billion to the Treasury unspent. And that’s the issue here. What you’re offering as an alternative is not necessarily that good.

Richard Holden: I think what you’re actually saying there is, I think you’ve put two things together which are diametrically opposed. One of the things we want to do is have really good apprenticeships right across the piece. What businesses are saying, some businesses, in the older system before we changed it, before we had that rigorous apprenticeship system that we’ve introduced and massively expanded, is that people were using apprenticeships as a way of putting people on low-paid work. We’ve stopped that from happening. That was a problem in the past under the last Labour government. And we have fundamentally changed apprenticeships, just like we’ve fundamentally improved the education outcomes for kids right across the country.

Cathy Newman: You just blame the last Labour government. You’ve been in power for 14 years. And since the apprenticeship levy was introduced, which was on your watch, apprenticeships have fallen from 500,000 to around 340,000. So they’ve fallen by a third.

Richard Holden: No,  I think if you drill down into the figures, and I know Channel 4 viewers are always interested in the detail, if you look at it, what we’ve done is we’ve really curtailed those level one apprenticeships. That’s a pre-GCSE level apprenticeship, which was something which is clearly ridiculous and we’ve really moved away from that. We’ve really pushed the better and higher level apprenticeships. That’s level three apprenticeships, which are A-level equivalent, and also those level four, five and six level apprenticeships, which are those HNC, HND and degree level apprenticeships. We’ve been really driving quality and standards across the board.

Cathy Newman: But if they’re such a roaring success, why do barely half complete them?

Richard Holden: Let’s look into the detail of that. And that’s because, what we’ve had to move away from is these ones which people didn’t like, didn’t work, weren’t actually delivering for them in the first place. Instead, what we’re moving towards now is, and we’ve made really significant progress in this area, is higher quality, better apprenticeships, which actually lead on to good jobs in the long term.

Cathy Newman: As a result of this policy, you suggest one in eight graduate courses will close. Do you think as a result of that, universities will have to close?

Richard Holden: I don’t think so.

Cathy Newman: Not a single one?

Richard Holden: I think what we’d hoped for when universities were expanded, back in the 90s and early 2000s, and there’s a big expansion in them, I think what we’d hoped for is real, good specialisation in our university sector. I think too often what we saw is universities just trying to get bums on seats because they got cash through the door. I want to ensure that every young person gets a maximum opportunity available to them, which also enables them, wherever possible, to earn money while they’re doing it.