Robert Halfon struggles with the details on higher education – and on apprenticeships too, funnily enough

The Minister for Skills, Apprenticeships and Higher Education lacks answers on the value of higher education, and on skills and apprenticeships as well

Michael Salmon is News Editor at Wonkhe

Robert Halfon was grilled by the Commons Education Committee on Tuesday over post-16 qualifications, with members taking the opportunity to raise quite a few different issues under the auspices of this very broad remit.

Early on, Miriam Cates put it to him that further education was a better investment than higher education, and maybe the department should stop giving so much of its resources to universities:

Five years after graduating, between a third and a half of graduates don’t have graduate jobs. Do you think the higher education sector represents value to the taxpayer?

Rather than responding to the questionable assertions, or considering the vast economic contribution of universities (and graduates) to economic growth – you know, digging into the details of private and public benefit, the kind of thing that Universities UK must be wondering how they can get ministers to listen to – Halfon did his usual thing of saying he is in favour of skills, that he wants universities to get involved here, and that he is in favour of degree apprenticeships – in fact, believe it or not, he wants to “rocket boost” them.

We might not be too hopeful that Halfon would have detail-oriented, evidence-based talking points on the value of higher education at his fingertips – and at least he wasn’t actively talking universities down, just failing to defend them with any level of substance.

But as the hearing wore on – skipping over the majority of the session focusing on problems with take up of T levels – you started to get the impression that Halfon is not really into the detail on apprenticeships either, despite his constant shtick that he is some kind of unapologetic apprenticeship obsessive.

Would such an obsessive have been following closely the recent publication of two pretty damning reports on apprenticeships, one from think tank EDSK, the other from the Sutton Trust?

As a quick refresh, EDSK suggested that much of current provision consists of “low skill roles masquerading as apprenticeships”, offering little meaningful training, and observed that the current dropout rate for all levels of apprenticeship stands at 47 per cent – with 70 per cent of those dropping out expressing concerns over quality. The report also criticises the use of apprenticeships for upskilling existing staff, noting that this has become one of the most frequent uses of levy funds.

The Sutton Trust found that over 25s account for over half of those undertaking degree apprenticeships, and that the middle-classes and wealthy areas have benefitted more from these qualifications than, say, those who were eligible for free school meals (just 5 per cent of degree apprentices).

Committee member Ian Mearns picked up the point about apprenticeship levy funds going towards in-house training. Halfon didn’t seem to understand the issue, saying that companies “have to train apprentices”, and a DfE civil servant had to step in to help out, confirming that companies do indeed choose to put existing employees on apprenticeships.

To hear Halfon talk about apprenticeships, there is no detail, just talk of skills and young people – and a worrying lack of evidence to support his assertions that apprenticeships (as a homogenous, reified block) are going to drive his very narrowly defined “social justice” agenda of getting young people into jobs.

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