Department For Education
Good morning and thank you, John, for that introduction. Times Higher Education is the voice of higher education and thats 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 were doing to safeguard higher educations 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 Annes 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 nigher 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.
Lets look first at the skills gap Ive 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 bachelors 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?
Lets 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 Ive 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, Ill name some others.
Manchester Metropolitan have had over 2,500 starts since their degree apprenticeship programme began in 2015. Theyve 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, theyll 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 dont 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 shouldnt 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 Im 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 dont always get a good degree - worthy of the effort theyve put in or the debt theyve accrued. These students are 8.6 percentage points less likely to achieve a good degree than their more privileged peers. There