Higher Education Reform

– in the House of Commons at 3:37 pm on 17 July 2023.

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Photo of Gillian Keegan Gillian Keegan The Secretary of State for Education 3:37, 17 July 2023

With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to announce the publication of the Government’s higher education reform consultation response. This country is one of the best in the world for studying in higher education, boasting four of the world’s top 10 universities. For most, higher education is a sound investment, with graduates expected to earn on average £100,000 more over their lifetime than those who do not go to university.

However, there are still pockets of higher education provision where the promise that university education will be worthwhile does not hold true and where an unacceptable number of students do not finish their studies or find a good job after graduating. That cannot continue. It is not fair to taxpayers who subsidise that education, but most of all it is not fair to those students who are being sold a promise of a better tomorrow, only to be disappointed and end up paying far into the future for a degree that did not offer them good value.

We want to make sure that students are charged a fair price for their studies and that a university education offers a good return. Our reforms are aimed at achieving that objective. That is why the Government launched the consultation in 2022, to seek views on policies based on recommendations made by Sir Philip Augar and his independent panel. The consultation ended in May 2022, and the Department for Education has been considering the responses received. I am now able to set out the programme of reforms that we are taking forward.

I believe that the traditional degree continues to hold great value, but it is not the only higher education pathway. Over the past 13 years, we have made substantial reforms to ensure that the traditional route is not the only pathway to a good career. Higher technical qualifications massively enhance students’ skills and career prospects, and deserve parity of esteem with undergraduate degrees. We have seen a growth in degree-level apprenticeships, with over 188,000 students enrolling since their introduction in 2014. I have asked the Office for Students to establish a £40 million competitive degree apprenticeships fund to drive forward capacity-building projects to broaden access to degree apprenticeships over the next two years.

That drive to encourage skills is why we are also investing up to £115 million to help providers deliver higher technical education. In March, we set out detailed information on how the lifelong learning entitlement will transform the way in which individuals can undertake post-18 education, and we continue to support that transformation through the Lifelong Learning (Higher Education Fee Limits) Bill, which is currently passing through the other place. We anticipate that that funding, coupled with the introduction of the LLE from 2025, will help to incentivise the take-up of higher technical education, filling vital skills gaps across the country.

Each of those reforms has had one simple premise: that we are educating people with the skills that will enable them to have a long and fulfilling career. I believe that we should have the same expectation for higher education: it should prepare students for life by giving them the right skills and knowledge to get well-paid jobs. With the advent of the LLE, it is neither fair nor right for students to use potentially three quarters of their lifelong loan entitlement for a university degree that does not offer them good returns. That would constrain their future ability to learn, earn and retrain. We must shrink the parts of the sector that do not deliver value, and ensure that students and taxpayers are getting value for money given their considerable investment.

Data shows that there were 66 providers from which fewer than 60% of graduates progressed to high-skilled employment or further study fifteen months after graduating. That is not acceptable. I will therefore issue statutory guidance to the OfS setting out that it should impose recruitment limits on provision that does not meet its rigorous quality requirements for positive student outcomes, to help to constrain the size and growth of courses that do not deliver for students. We will also ask the OfS to consider how it can incorporate graduate earnings into its quality regime. We recognise that many factors can influence graduate earnings, but students have a right to expect that their investment in higher education will improve their career prospects, and we should rightly scrutinise courses that appear to offer limited added value to students on the metric that matters most to many.

We will work with the OfS to consider franchising arrangements in the sector. All organisations that deliver higher education must be held to robust standards. I am concerned about some indications that franchising is acting as a potential route for low quality to seep into the higher education system, and I am absolutely clear that lead providers have a responsibility to ensure that franchised provision is of the same quality as directly delivered provision. If we find examples of undesirable practices, we will not hesitate to act further on franchising.

As I have said, we will ensure that students are charged a fair price for their studies. That is why we are also reducing to £5,760 the fees for classroom-based foundation year courses such as business studies and social sciences, in line with the highest standard funding rate for access to HE diplomas. Recently we have seen an explosion in the growth of many such courses, but limited evidence that they are in the best interests of students. We are not reducing the fee limits for high-cost, strategically important subjects such as veterinary sciences and medicine, but we want to ensure that foundation years are not used to add to the bottom line of institutions at the expense of those who study them. We will continue to monitor closely the growth of foundation year provision, and we will not hesitate to introduce further restrictions or reductions. I want providers to consider whether those courses add value for students, and to phase out that provision in favour of a broad range of tertiary options with the advent of the LLE.

Our aim is that everyone who wants to benefit from higher education has the opportunity to do so. That is why we will not proceed at this time with a minimum requirement of academic attainment to access student finance—although we will keep that option under review. I am confident that the sector will respond with the ambition and focused collaboration required to deliver this package of reforms. I extend my wholehearted thanks to those in the sector for their responses to the consultation.

This package of reforms represents the next step in tackling low-quality higher education, but it will not be the last step. The Government will not shy away from further action if required, and will consider all levers available to us if these quality reforms do not result in the improvements we seek. Our higher education system is admired across many countries, and these measures will ensure that it continues to be. I commend this statement to the House.

Photo of Bridget Phillipson Bridget Phillipson Shadow Secretary of State for Education 3:44, 17 July 2023

I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of her statement.

Today’s statement tells us several stories about this Government. It tells a story about their priorities: why universities, and why now? It tells a story about their analysis: what they think is wrong and what they think is not. It tells a story about their competence: why these changes, when their own regulator has used a different approach for so long? It tells a story about their prejudice, about why they continue to reinforce a binary choice for young people: either academic or vocational, university or apprenticeship. Above all, it tells a story about values—about the choice to put caps on the aspirations and ambitions of our young people; about Ministers for whom opportunity is for their children, but not for other people’s children; about a Government whose only big idea for our world-leading universities is to put up fresh barriers to opportunity, anxious to keep young people in their place. It tells you everything you need to know about the Tories that this is their priority for our young people.

This is the Tories’ priority when we are in the middle of an urgent crisis in this country; when families are struggling to make ends meet; when patients are facing the biggest waiting lists in NHS history; when children are going to school in buildings that Ministers themselves acknowledge are “very likely” to collapse; and when a spiral of low productivity, low growth, and low wages under the Tories is holding Britain back. It is because the Prime Minister is weak and he is in hock to his Back Benchers that we are not seeing action on those important priorities. Instead, after more than 13 years in power, the Government have shown what they really think of our universities, which are famous across the world, are core to so many of our regional economies and were essential to our pandemic response: that they are not a public good, but a political battleground.

The Government’s concept of a successful university course, based on earnings, is not just narrow but limiting. I ask the Secretary of State briefly to consider the case of the right hon. Member for Richmond (Yorks) (Rishi Sunak). The Prime Minister has a degree in politics from one of our leading universities, yet his Government lost control of almost 50 councils this year, he was the second choice of his own party, and now he is on track to fail to deliver on the pledges he set himself publicly. Does the Secretary of State believe that the Prime Minister’s degree was in any sense a high-value course?

Let us be clear what today’s announcement is really about. Many of our most successful newer universities—the fruits of the determination of successive Governments, Labour and Conservative, to spread opportunity in this country—often draw more students from their local communities. Many of those areas are far from London, far from existing concentrations of graduate jobs. Many of those students come from backgrounds where few in their family, if any, will have had the chance to go to university. Many of those young people benefit from extra support when they arrive at university to ensure they succeed. We on the Labour Benches welcome the success of those universities in widening participation and welcoming more young people into higher education, yet today, the Secretary of State is telling those young people—including those excited to be finishing their studies this year—that this Government believe their hard work counts for nothing. Can the Secretary of State be absolutely clear with the House, and tell us which of those universities’ courses she considers to be of low value?

The Secretary of State is keen to trumpet her party’s record on apprenticeships, but let me set out what this Government’s record really is. Since 2015-16, apprenticeship starts among under-19s have dropped by 41%, and apprentice achievements in that age group are down by 57%. Since the Secretary of State entered this place, the number of young people achieving an apprenticeship at any level has more than halved, failing a generation of young people desperate to take on an apprenticeship.

Lastly and most importantly, the values that this Government have set out today are clear: the Conservatives are saying to England’s young people that opportunity is not for them and that choice is not for them. The bizarre irony of a Conservative Government seeking to restrict freedom and restrict choices seems entirely lost on them. Labour will shatter the class ceiling. We will ensure that young people believe that opportunity is for them. Labour is the party of opportunity, aspiration and freedom. Let us be clear, too, that young people want to go to university not merely to get on financially, but for the chance to join the pursuit of learning, to explore ideas and undertake research that benefits us all. That chance and that opportunity matter too. Our children deserve better. They deserve a Government whose most important mission will be to break down the barriers to opportunity and to build a country where background is no barrier. They deserve a Labour Government.

Photo of Gillian Keegan Gillian Keegan The Secretary of State for Education

As usual, the hon. Lady has more words than actions. None of those actions was put in place either in Wales, where Labour is running the education system, or in the UK when it was running it in England. We have always made the deliberate choice of quality over quantity, and this is a story of a consistent drive for quality, whether that is through my right hon. Friend the Schools Minister having driven up school standards, so that we are the best in the west for reading and fourth best in the world, or through childcare, revolutionising the apprenticeship system—none of that existed before we put it in place—and technical education and higher education.

I was an other people’s child: I was that kid who left school at 16, who went to a failing comprehensive school in Knowsley. I relied on the business, and the college and the university that I went to. I did not know their brand images and I knew absolutely nobody who had ever been there. I put my trust in that company, and luckily it did me very well. Not all universities and not all courses have the trusted brand image of Oxford and Cambridge, which I think is where the hon. Lady went, along with my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. I have worked with many leaders all over the world in my many years in business, and the Prime Minister is a world-class leader.

On apprenticeships, it is a case of quality always over quantity. What we found, and this is why I introduced the quality standards, is that, yes, the numbers were higher, but many of the people did not realise they were on an apprenticeship, many of the apprenticeships lasted less than 12 months and for many of them there was zero off-the-job training. They were apprenticeships in name only, which is what the Labour party will be when it comes to standards for education.

Photo of Peter Bottomley Peter Bottomley Father of the House of Commons

I thank the Secretary of State. Those of us with long memories know that we either ration places by number or we give people choice. If she is giving people the choice of being able to discriminate between the courses and universities on offer, I congratulate her, as I do especially on the lifetime learning and the degree apprenticeship expansion, which has already happened, with more to come.

However, can I also speak up for those who either got fourth-class degrees or failed to take a degree at all, including two of the three Governors of the Bank of England who went to King’s and who came out without a degree? Rabi Tagore left university, and many other poets, painters, teachers or ministers of religion—whether rabbis, imams or ministers in the Christian Church—do not show up highly on the earnings scale, but they might show up highly in their contributions to society. Can my right hon. Friend please make sure that she does not let an algorithm rate colleges, courses or universities?

Photo of Gillian Keegan Gillian Keegan The Secretary of State for Education

I thank my hon. Friend for his remarks, and I very much agree that this is about choice—the lifelong loan entitlement, degree apprenticeships and all of the other choices—and about people understanding that there are many different routes to success in life. We have asked the Office for Students to look at earnings, because I realise that is difficult and that some jobs will not earn people more. However, for his information, five years after graduating from some courses, people are earning less than £18,000. That is less than the minimum wage, and it is not acceptable.

Photo of Valerie Vaz Valerie Vaz Labour, Walsall South

May I ask the Secretary of State, because she has not actually spelled this out, what is a low-value degree?

Photo of Gillian Keegan Gillian Keegan The Secretary of State for Education

In relation to low-value degrees, an example of the quality provisions we have introduced for the Office for Students is B3, which is about: whether students continue in their degree, because clearly if they drop out, it is not of much value; whether they complete their degree, because clearly if they do not complete it, it is of zero value; and whether they get a job or progress into higher education afterwards. Those are the three quality measures we look at. Right now, the Office for Students is looking at 18 providers and two specific areas—business and management, and computer science—because there is a massive range in what people can expect to earn from jobs having followed one course or others, all of which seem to have the same name. There are quality issues, and we want to make sure that they are thoroughly investigated. The Office for Students is doing that.

Photo of Robin Walker Robin Walker The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, Chair, Education Committee, Chair, Education Committee

I welcome the focus on both choice and policy that my right hon. Friend has focused on in her statement. The Education Committee will want to look at the detail of the proposals, and at the kind of courses that are affected. It is crucial that in launching this approach, she recognises that all our universities are selling a premium product. All our universities are high-quality institutions, and it would be wrong to discriminate against different universities in the system when, after all, they are all funded on the same fundamental basis.

Photo of Gillian Keegan Gillian Keegan The Secretary of State for Education

I agree with my hon. Friend and I am proud of our university sector. It is much admired all over the world, but we must ensure that specific courses in all institutions offer the quality that people expect. When people invest in these degrees they will come out with £40,000 or £50,000 of debt, and it is important first that they know that, and secondly that they know what they are investing in, and what return they will get on that investment.

Photo of Barry Sheerman Barry Sheerman Labour/Co-operative, Huddersfield

May I beg the Secretary of State not to throw the baby out with the bath water? Everybody wants good-quality degrees, and we all want degrees to lead to good, fulfilling occupations, but some of us are worried about the comments that were made in an interview this morning by the Secretary of State’s ministerial colleague that we have four or five of the best universities in the world, as if all the other 120 universities were rubbish. That is not the case. We have diverse universities and great courses. I ask her please not to throw the baby out with the bath water and do great damage to our higher education system.

Photo of Gillian Keegan Gillian Keegan The Secretary of State for Education

I agree with the hon. Gentleman. We have an excellent university system with excellent universities. Four out of the top 10 are world-class, but if we broaden that to the top 100, many others would appear in that list. We have a good university sector, which is why it is most important that we protect the brand image. It is also very popular abroad, and every year more than 600,000 students choose to come here, which is more than to almost every other country in the world. Why? It is because they know they will get quality, and it is very important for the sector that that quality is maintained.

Photo of Kit Malthouse Kit Malthouse The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice

I know the Secretary of State takes a more than purely transactional view of higher education, and I am with the Father of the House in hoping that in her reforms there will be protections for degrees that do not offer an immediate commercial advantage, such as theology, philosophy or the study of poetry. I also hope that within her reforms there will be protections to allow universities to innovate and introduce new courses. Our university sector has obviously been at the forefront of driving forward British intellectualism and thinking, and not allowing universities to experiment with courses that may not immediately fulfil the criteria that she is proposing, or indeed forbidding or deterring them from doing so, would set us back in world terms. Will she reassure us that innovation will still be encouraged?

Photo of Gillian Keegan Gillian Keegan The Secretary of State for Education

I thank my right hon. Friend for all the work that he did in this area. Yes, I understand the difficulty of choosing a blunt number or tool. That is why I have asked the Office for Students to consider how such things could be used and what approaches we need to ensure that we do not throw the baby out with the bath water, or end up with unintended consequences. On innovation, I am absolutely encouraging all our universities to innovate, working with businesses. The pace of technological change across the world and what is to come in the future is immense, and I want our universities to work with our further education colleges, training providers, businesses and others, to ensure that we innovate and give everybody the best opportunities for the future.

Photo of Munira Wilson Munira Wilson Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Education)

There is no clearer sign of a Government who are out of ideas and have run out of steam than when they re-announce policies and badge them as new. The Office for Students already has these powers, and has already capped four specific providers. Rather than putting down our universities and capping our young people’s aspirations, why does the Secretary of State not invest in them by restoring maintenance grants, and finally signing the dotted line on Horizon membership?

Photo of Gillian Keegan Gillian Keegan The Secretary of State for Education

Not all the things I have brought forward today have already been announced. The information on foundation degrees is new, and the work we are doing with the OfS is also new. We have asked the OfS to consider the impact of recruitment limits, and how those can be introduced. I personally think this is an important set of reforms. We need to make sure that we have access to these fantastic courses at our universities so that through programmes—such as Horizon, when we complete those negotiations—we can continue to offer the very best in science from this country.

Photo of Esther McVey Esther McVey Conservative, Tatton

I very much welcome this statement to limit the number of students that universities can recruit to courses that are failing. The Secretary of State has my full support. Can she tell me whether this measure will also apply to foreign students? At the very least, will foreign students be barred from bringing dependants with them to do these courses?

Photo of Gillian Keegan Gillian Keegan The Secretary of State for Education

The quality of the courses on offer applies to everybody. If we change the quality for domestic students, it will then be the same quality for international students, which is important because of the size of the international student sector, which brings about £25 billion to £30 billion to our economy every year. We have already addressed the issue of dependants for taught master’s courses in our recent changes to migration visas.

Photo of Daniel Zeichner Daniel Zeichner Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

The Secretary of State has confirmed that the Office for Students already had the powers to enforce on student outcome provisions, so this announcement is just narrow politicking. Hidden in the UCAS figures last week was the fact that home student applications are falling in this country. Can the Secretary of State confirm that this Government’s policy is now one of narrowing participation?

Photo of Gillian Keegan Gillian Keegan The Secretary of State for Education

Absolutely not, no. I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman has asked this question, because our policy is about widening participation and making sure that education is high-quality. It is also about making sure that there are more degree apprenticeships. There are now 180,000, which did not exist before. There are now 180,000 more people who can do what I did, as the only degree apprentice in the House of Commons. It is a fantastic route into the workplace. We also have higher technical qualifications and boot camps. There is so much investment that has all happened under this Conservative Government.

Photo of Bill Wiggin Bill Wiggin Chair, Committee of Selection, Chair, Committee of Selection, Chair, Committee of Selection

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the shadow Secretary of State, Bridget Phillipson, missed the opportunity to condemn the disgusting and cruel University and College Union marking boycott? Will my right hon. Friend use these reforms to protect young people to ensure that this never happens again and that universities such as Cambridge and Exeter can issue degrees?

Photo of Gillian Keegan Gillian Keegan The Secretary of State for Education

It is important. Young people have suffered already a lot during covid. They have invested in their degree and put all the hard work in. It is only right that they should have their degrees marked. This is a dispute between universities and their lecturers, but we are urging them to make sure they prioritise all those who will be graduating this year.

Photo of Sammy Wilson Sammy Wilson Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Treasury), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Brexit)

I welcome the announcement today, because for far too long, some universities cynically sold courses to students even though they knew the outcomes were poor in qualifications and employment opportunities. Does the Minister accept that it was her party that allowed the increase in fees, was aware of the mismatch sometimes between courses and the needs of the economy, and did nothing to cap those courses? Does she not recognise that some people will be rather cynical that the tsunami of announcements we are getting now is more to do with the by-elections, rather than the ability to deliver between now and a general election?

Photo of Gillian Keegan Gillian Keegan The Secretary of State for Education

Absolutely not. I have been working on this policy with many former Ministers, even since I was the Apprenticeships and Skills Minister. We have been working on this for a long time to make sure we get it right. When a working-class kid who will come out with £50,000 of debt puts their trust in an institution, they have to put their trust in the system and it is vital that the system delivers for them. If they have £50,000 of debt and no better job prospects, that is not a system delivering for them.

Photo of Julian Lewis Julian Lewis Chair, Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament

Would it not benefit university courses’ quality more if university administrators were paid a lot less and university lecturers were paid rather more?

Photo of Gillian Keegan Gillian Keegan The Secretary of State for Education

My right hon. Friend puts his finger on a debate that is going on in our universities right now, and I know it is part of the discussions between university lecturers and university management.

Photo of Rupa Huq Rupa Huq Labour, Ealing Central and Acton

I have been around the block—Oxbridge, red brick, ex-poly—long enough to know that this statement reeks of academic snobbery and desperation. In cultural studies, people can legitimately analyse Mickey Mouse as a subject of academic inquiry—I have ex-students who did that who are now earning more than any of us in here. When will the Government address the things that our constituents really want to be dealt with, such as crippling student debt and the massively reduced and minimal contact hours that the covid generation got?

Photo of Gillian Keegan Gillian Keegan The Secretary of State for Education

The hon. Lady will be delighted about the data that we now have. If students having done those courses go on to earn more—I do not know what her judgment is on those institutions—that will be absolutely fantastic; that is all that we expect. I have two business and management degrees and know business well, having spent 30 years in it, but if people cannot get a good business job after doing a business and management degree, I would suggest that was not a good-quality degree. One must recognise that.

Photo of Chris Green Chris Green Conservative, Bolton West

My right hon. Friend is right to celebrate Britain’s international higher education success, but does she agree that any changes made must recognise the tremendous success of the 2,000 workers at the University of Bolton, which has shot up The Guardian’s best university guide league table now to be placed in the top 40?

Photo of Gillian Keegan Gillian Keegan The Secretary of State for Education

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point, and I know that he is a big champion of the University of Bolton, which I was delighted to meet recently. It is quite interesting that a lot of former polytechnics and newer universities are working and collaborating so well with businesses, offering more degree apprenticeships and more flexible courses, and storming up the league tables.

Photo of Barbara Keeley Barbara Keeley Shadow Minister (Cabinet Office), Shadow Minister (Culture, Media and Sport)

I am concerned that many university degrees that lead young people into the creative sector will be squeezed under the Government’s plans. Industry leaders have warned that limiting student numbers based on graduate earnings fails to account for the working patterns of graduates in the creative industries, and particularly the arts, where people do not immediately earn high salaries. The salaries in those professions do not reflect their importance to national wellbeing and the contribution that the arts make to our national income. What assessment has the Department for Education made of the damage that this latest policy will do to those arts and humanities subjects that have already been relentlessly cut back under Conservative-led Governments?

Photo of Gillian Keegan Gillian Keegan The Secretary of State for Education

I am a huge supporter of our creative and arts industries, which are among our largest, and we are very successful in them. I work with them a lot to ensure that we can deliver even broader apprenticeship routes, because they are difficult industries to get into. I have asked the Office for Students to consider how to do this reform to ensure that we consider things like the creative arts and other routes, which sometimes take longer to get into but offer a different aspect of learning. That is why we have not just introduced a blunt tool. I will continue to work with our fantastic creative sector.

Photo of Vicky Ford Vicky Ford Conservative, Chelmsford

I congratulate my right hon. Friend and the Department on their focus on excellence. This morning, I attended the graduation ceremony of students from Anglia Ruskin University in Chelmsford. It was so moving, because, for the first time in history, students graduated as medical doctors in Essex. Our investment five years ago in five new medical schools across the country is a shining example of a Conservative Government investing for future needs. Will she work with me to try to double the number of medical students and encourage a degree apprenticeship for doctors, and will she congratulate our new doctors?

Photo of Gillian Keegan Gillian Keegan The Secretary of State for Education

I know that my right hon. Friend is a huge champion of Anglia Ruskin University. I am delighted about the number of medical doctors and the new medical schools, which, as she said, were introduced under this Government. When I was the Apprenticeships and Skills Minister, one of the last things I did, and which I am most proud about, was to get a medical doctors apprenticeship standard built, and I am delighted that that is being rolled out from September. I look forward to Anglia Ruskin offering that as well.

Photo of Mike Amesbury Mike Amesbury Labour, Weaver Vale

I was the first in my family to get a university degree—I hope that I am not the last. Will the Secretary of State confirm that the Tory party is the party of the blockers—blocking aspiration and opportunity in higher education as well as the building of affordable houses?

Photo of Gillian Keegan Gillian Keegan The Secretary of State for Education

No, I think that the hon. Member has got it completely wrong. Under the Conservatives, an 18-year-old from a disadvantaged background is 86% more likely to go to university than they were in 2010. Under Labour, the richest students were seven times more likely to go to university than the poorest 40% in society.

Photo of Jonathan Gullis Jonathan Gullis Conservative, Stoke-on-Trent North

I welcome the Secretary of State’s plans, but I want higher education reform to go further. A recent paper by the New Conservatives included an excellent suggestion to extend the closure of the student dependant route to students enrolled on one-year research master’s degrees. Would she support that?

Photo of Gillian Keegan Gillian Keegan The Secretary of State for Education

My hon. Friend knows that we have already looked at that in careful detail. It is kept under review, and we recently made changes to the taught course route.

Photo of Tim Farron Tim Farron Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government)

Of course students deserve high-quality education at university. They also deserve to be cared for during what is, for most of them, their first time away from home. Does the Secretary of State agree with me, and with the families of young people who have tragically taken their own lives at university, that higher education institutions should do more to look out for and protect those students, including by having a statutory duty of care?

Photo of Gillian Keegan Gillian Keegan The Secretary of State for Education

I completely agree. That is why the Minister for Skills, Apprenticeships and Higher Education, my right hon. Friend Robert Halfon, has asked all universities to sign up to the mental health charter.

Photo of Tom Hunt Tom Hunt Conservative, Ipswich

A key stakeholder is the British taxpayer, who ends up picking up a £1 billion bill for people who cannot pay back their student debt. Bricklayers, roofers and carpenters—there are not enough people in Britain to do those jobs. Does the Education Secretary agree that we should promote those opportunities and routes in our school system? No one should turn up their nose at those jobs; they offer a good pathway to a good wage, and we should promote them.

Photo of Gillian Keegan Gillian Keegan The Secretary of State for Education

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. Lots of people are surprised by how much they can earn in some of those trades, whether welding, bricklaying or plumbing. There have been, and there will always be, fabulous apprenticeships and full-time courses to make sure everyone can reach those careers.

Photo of Mick Whitley Mick Whitley Labour, Birkenhead

The most important factor in determining graduate outcomes remains the student’s socioeconomic background. The average student from a working-class background goes on to earn less after graduating than their wealthier peers with the same degree. Does the Minister concede that the Government’s insistence on degrading the value of degrees and restricting access to higher education will only compound those deep structural inequalities that define our education system? Does the Minister accept that many young people in my constituency will consider those plans an attempt to put them back in their place and out of university?

Photo of Gillian Keegan Gillian Keegan The Secretary of State for Education

I was in exactly the same place as the people in his constituency—in fact, in the same city—so I do not accept that at all. We are upgrading the options for people from working-class backgrounds and upgrading the quality of degrees. I would not be here if I had not had the options I had, which included an apprenticeship, FE college and a part-time degree at Liverpool John Moores University. That was high quality. Everybody who puts their trust in the system should get the same.

Photo of Andrew Jones Andrew Jones Chair, European Statutory Instruments Committee, Chair, European Statutory Instruments Committee

I support my right hon. Friend’s comments on the UCU marking ban, which is so hurtful to students. The latest UCAS data shows a record number of 18-year-olds from the most disadvantaged areas accepted on to a course, and that the entry rate gap between the most advantaged and disadvantaged areas now stands at 2.1, a record low. That is great, but there is more work to be done. Will my right hon. Friend continue to focus on closing that gap?

Photo of Gillian Keegan Gillian Keegan The Secretary of State for Education

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We are continuing to close that gap, and we have made unbelievable progress—more in the last 13 years than ever in this country. We will continue to make sure that working class people get access to all high-quality routes into the workplace.

Photo of Rachael Maskell Rachael Maskell Labour/Co-operative, York Central

The Government should address the reasons why some courses are struggling, not the consequences. Higher education funding is in crisis, and that is having an impact on the function of universities, not least the post-1992 universities. Will the review by the Office for Students look at the higher education funding model? How will it address the real symptoms that she is talking about?

Photo of Gillian Keegan Gillian Keegan The Secretary of State for Education

The hon. Lady makes an interesting point, but at the moment the OfS has 18 providers under investigation for poor quality. There are many more providers, and we have a standard fee. It will look at contextual aspects such as demographics, socioeconomics and mature students. It looks at all that in context, but there are 18 providers out of a much larger number.

Photo of Greg Smith Greg Smith Conservative, Buckingham

The Secretary of State has my full support for the measures she has announced this afternoon. On that key mission of ensuring that students pay a fair price and get a good return for their university education, does she agree that more institutions should follow the example of the University of Buckingham, which offers fantastic two-year undergraduate degrees with staggered start points throughout the year?

Photo of Gillian Keegan Gillian Keegan The Secretary of State for Education

Yes. The University of Buckingham has taken an excellent leadership position and its two-year degree is very much welcomed by many people. We will introduce the lifelong loan entitlement, which will revolutionise how and when people go to university, what type of courses they take, for what period of time, and how they make those decisions over their entire career and lifetime.

Photo of Helen Morgan Helen Morgan Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Levelling up, Housing and Communities), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Local Government)

Many of my constituents study or have obtained degrees from Harper Adams University, just up the road. Those degrees are at the cutting edge of agriculture and the key challenge facing all of us, which is how to feed the planet in a sustainable way. Their degrees and the likely careers they go into are classified by the Office for National Statistics as “unprofessional”. Will the Secretary of State consider reviewing the data and taking a really hard look at how those occupations are classified, because some of my constituents would miss out on a really important opportunity to do a high-class and important degree?

Photo of Gillian Keegan Gillian Keegan The Secretary of State for Education

I thank the hon. Lady. Harper Adams University is a fantastic university. It does a fantastic range of courses, more and more looking at agri-tech, the technology within agriculture. I am sure it offers fantastic high quality to its students. There have been discussions about the professions and how the data is organised, so I will look at that. A number have raised that concern, not just those in agriculture.

Photo of Holly Mumby-Croft Holly Mumby-Croft Conservative, Scunthorpe

It seems absolutely right to me that those who choose to go to university should expect a good-quality, good-value education they can put to good use throughout their lives. My right hon. Friend mentions apprenticeships. Will she say a little more about what we can do to ensure parity of esteem between degree and apprenticeship routes?

Photo of Gillian Keegan Gillian Keegan The Secretary of State for Education

I thank my hon. Friend for all her support and I know she is a keen proponent of apprenticeships in her area. A lot of it is now about awareness—the apprenticeships are fantastic; I knew 35 years ago that they were fantastic, but I think now everybody knows how fantastic they are—through putting them on UCAS and, from next year, having people able to apply through UCAS. We will also have a centralised site, so that all the apprenticeships are together and people can look at the vast array of careers they can access—670 different routes into pretty much every career you can think of. It is about awareness. I thank all my hon. Friends who have apprenticeship fairs and do a lot to make people aware of these fantastic choices.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

I thank the Secretary of State for her statement outlining that university courses which fail to deliver good outcomes, with high dropout rates and poor employment prospects, will be subject to strict controls. That is great news for families who struggle to pay the money for courses which end up with no benefit. What discussions has she had with the universities in Northern Ireland, Queen’s University Belfast and Ulster University? Will she confirm that this approach will be UK-wide, and that the postal and trade sea border will not extend to an education sea border?

Photo of Gillian Keegan Gillian Keegan The Secretary of State for Education

I think the hon. Gentleman knows that this policy is devolved, but I work very closely with my ministerial counterparts in all devolved nations. We share information and best practice, and there are collaborative discussions, too. I will make sure I share this with them, as well.

Photo of Brendan Clarke-Smith Brendan Clarke-Smith Conservative, Bassetlaw

I whole-heartedly support what the Secretary of State said today. Does she agree that degrees should provide value for money and lead to better employment prospects and career development, as thankfully happened with my studying politics at Nottingham Trent University, not just a certificate and a debt, as developed under the previous Labour Administration who introduced fees and then did their best to devalue them?

Photo of Gillian Keegan Gillian Keegan The Secretary of State for Education

My hon. Friend is right. Labour has flip-flopped on fees, with several different policies in that area. We are fully committed to building up our university higher education sector and we continue to do that. It is admired across the world, but it is most important that every degree is a quality degree that leads to good outcomes.

Photo of Siobhan Baillie Siobhan Baillie Conservative, Stroud

The Secretary of State is right: the Labour party has not just flip-flopped on its position on tuition fees, but is now coming across as not wanting parents and young people to have the best possible information about their options. I am working with the think-tank Policy Exchange on reforming the apprenticeship levy. As it has identified, if the public sector apprenticeship target of 2.8% was met in all areas, we could create 25,000 additional apprenticeships. Will my right hon. Friend look at that and at whether we can change the procurement contract rules, because we will need these new opportunities as we go forward?

Photo of Gillian Keegan Gillian Keegan The Secretary of State for Education

As my hon. Friend knows, I fully support giving more and more people access to apprenticeships. We are currently spending 99.6% of the budget, which does not leave much room for further flexibilities over and above what we have already introduced. The Labour party’s policy of halving the apprenticeship levy will result only in fewer opportunities: it is a terrible policy and they should flip that policy, because it is a flop.