Rishi Sunak vows to replace ‘rip-off’ degrees with 100,000 more apprenticeships

Rishi Sunak is pledging to create 100,000 more apprenticeships a year by shutting down “rip-off degrees” as he battles to remain in No 10.

The Prime Minister wants to see the worst-performing university courses replaced with high-skilled apprenticeships if the Conservatives retain power after the General Election.

He will say that 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.

POLITICS Election Polls
(PA Graphics)

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

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.

The policy would cost £885 million in 2029/30, according to party estimates.

The Conservatives said 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.

General Election campaign 2024
Rishi Sunak on the election campaign trail (Aaron Chown/PA)

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.

Mr Sunak, who is campaigning in the South West on Wednesday, said: “Improving education is the closest thing we have to a silver bullet for boosting life chances. So it’s not fair that some university courses are ripping young people off.

“Thanks to our plan, apprenticeships are much higher quality than they were under Labour. And now we will create 100,000 more, by putting an end to rip-off degrees and offering our young people the employment opportunities and financial security they need to thrive.

“That’s the choice at this election – the Conservatives with our clear plan to grow the economy and give people the opportunities they need for a secure future, or Labour who have no plan and would take us back to square one.”

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
Education Secretary Gillian Keegan (Lucy North/PA)

“The choice is clear: Sir Keir Starmer and the Labour Party who have contempt for apprenticeships, or Rishi Sunak and the Conservatives who have a clear plan to give young people the best start to their careers.”

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: “It is laughable that the Tories, who have presided over a halving of apprenticeships for young people, are now announcing this.

“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?

“Labour will get our economy growing again by gearing apprenticeships to young people and delivering a new Growth and Skills Levy to provide the skills businesses need. We’ll create a new generation of Technical Excellence Colleges, working with employers and our world class universities, to get people into good jobs in their area.”

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 drop out rates.

“This treatment of apprentices as second-class workers will only continue under the Conservatives.

“Urgent reform is needed, not more muddled, ill-thought-through bluster from a party that has decimated our education sector and our economy.”

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.