Modern Universities and the Skills Agenda

07 Dec 2023

The Rt. Hon. Lord Willetts, Minister for Universities and Science from 2010-2014, outlines the position of modern universities within the skills landscape in England

There is a very misleading picture of universities as somehow unconcerned with vocational skills which are seen as very different from their academic role. This goes back to the idea that a liberal education could not possibly be useful. But that doctrine never captured the wide range of vocational courses taught at universities going back of course to law and medicine.

Modern universities often have their origins in meeting the practical needs of their area – training teachers for local schools and engineers for local factories. Those traditions carry on today. Indeed more than a third of courses at modern universities are accredited by professional, statutory or regulatory bodies, producing a graduate with a license to practice a trade or profession.

The focus at the moment is on degree apprenticeships. These are a very welcome addition to the range of higher education provision. But they have their limitations too. For a start they cost a lot to deliver and as the graduate does not currently have to pay back any of the cost that cost all falls on the providers. That means they are financed out of the Apprenticeship Levy which is now 99% spent. This creates an expenditure constraint and limits their growth. If they were instead to be partly financed out of student loans repaid only when income is above an earnings threshold, then there would be no limit on their growth. That is one of the key advantages of the fees and loans model.

Moreover, the focus on degree apprenticeships should not obscure the many other ways in which universities work with employers to deliver courses with a strong vocational element. There are sandwich courses, elements of degrees courses co-designed with employers, work experience programmes, and short modular top-up courses for local employers.

The Lifelong Learning Entitlement is an opportunity to expand this sort of provision. It can be used for short modular courses which may be most directly relevant to employment. However the evidence is that mature students can be much more reluctant to take on student debt than 18year-olds who are at a significant fork in the road and can see that higher education is a route to a good life and probably higher earnings. If you are already in a job and possibly have family commitments, taking out a loan to study further looks more risky. That decision is easier to take if your employer can see the value of the course and supports it as a route perhaps to promotion. Modern universities with their strong links to local employers are well placed to promote such encouragement.

Another hot topic at the moment is level 4 and level 5 qualifications. The funding regime currently makes it easier to take out a loan for a full honours degree than a sub-degree level of higher education. It is right that these anomalies are tackled as part of the new regime for lifelong learning. That will enable us to find out how much suppressed demand there is for level 4 and 5 qualifications and what their labour market returns are. At the moment the claims for high returns for level 4 and 5 rest on two small specific courses – a nursing diploma and an engineering diploma, each taken by a few thousand students. Again there is an opportunity for modern universities in particular to offer a wider range of courses at that level and it will be interesting to see how they fare. If there is unmet need for such courses it is our entrepreneurial modern universities with their links to employers who are best placed to identify and fulfil it.

The distinctive character of modern universities with their history as polytechnics adds something special to our higher education system and shows the wide range of missions universities can fulfil. Indeed the success of modern universities in showing how these more vocational models can work has had and will continue to have a wider impact and influence provision in many universities with very different historic origins. All parts of the system can learn from the modern university model.  

David Willetts was Minister for Universities and Science 2010-2014. His book A University Education is published by OUP.