Minister Halfon's speech at the Times Higher Education conference

Minister for Skills, Apprenticeships and Higher Education Robert Halfon delivers a speech at the Times Higher Education conference in Liverpool

The Rt Hon Robert Halfon MP

Times Higher Education is such an important voice for the sector, and I’m delighted to be speaking to you again.

I want to start with a personal story about my relationship with higher education.

I was born with a form of cerebral palsy, spastic diplegia. The doctors told my father I’d never be able do anything - to walk, live independently or, for example, go to university.

Thanks to a Great Ormond Street doctor, I did learn to walk and went on to do things no one would have predicted - included going to university. I never imagined I’d be able to walk or cycle up the steep hills of Exeter, but I did. Going to university was the greatest time of my life. I greatly enjoyed getting my degree, and then staying on to do a masters.

My experience taught me not just to highly value higher education - but to cherish it.

A sector to be proud of

I’m proud that Britain has some of the best universities in the world.

4 in the top 10, and 17 in the top 100. Students travel from over 200 nations to study here. And our universities lead the world in producing valuable research:

We rank 1st in the G7 for publications’ impact.

We also have excellent technical and vocational universities, which are expanding the concept of degree education. They are equipping students with premium skills for high-powered jobs, and collaborating with further education to deliver sought-after degree apprenticeships.

And data released today shows that we’re flinging wide the doors to university like never before. Thanks to the commitment you’ve shown to access and participation, disadvantaged English 18-year-olds are now 74% more likely to enter higher education than they were in 2010.

I want to congratulate everyone in this room for their contribution to the picture I’ve described: the deans, lecturers, admissions tutors - all the academic teaching and research staff. And I also want to thank all those who aren’t in the room, but are just as important to making a university successful: the support staff, administrators, student counsellors and caterers. Everything that all of you do has made this sector what it is today.

I recognise the financial pressures universities are under – and appreciate the work you are doing to manage these and deliver outstanding outcomes for young people.

We’re working in a very challenging financial context across government. This means we must continue to make tough decisions to control public spending - but also try to help students with the cost-of-living, and ensure they receive value-for-money.

Beveridge’s 5 Giants 

Last year I laid out my 3 aims for higher education: jobs, skills and social justice.

This year, to look to the future, I want to first look back to December 1942.

Twentieth Century historians among you will recognise the year that Sir William Beveridge published his report on Britain’s social ills. As you will know, the Beveridge report went on to become the founding document for the welfare state.

Beveridge described 5 giants that were standing in the way of the nation’s progress.

They were idleness, ignorance, disease, squalor and want.

Although the report was a blueprint for social security, Beveridge also acknowledges the evils he considered just as bad as income, housing or healthcare deficits.

Namely, lack of education and employment.

Beveridge described ignorance as something “no democracy can afford among its citizens”, and idleness as a force that ‘destroys wealth and corrupts men, whether they are well fed or not’.

My 5 Giants 

So taking my cue from Beveridge, I want to talk about my 5 giants – the 5 challenges I believe higher education faces in this decade and beyond.

They are higher education reforms, HE disruptors, degree apprenticeships, the lifelong learning entitlement and artificial intelligence and the fourth industrial revolution.

I will end by talking about an unwelcome shift in culture on campus this autumn, and what we must do about it.

HE reform

I want to start with our ongoing higher education reforms, and the challenge they present to universities.

The sector has evolved in the last 25 years to a widely-accessed, fee-paying model. Data from the Office for Students shows that students overwhelmingly progress to good employment, further study or other positive outcomes. However, government has a duty to monitor provision funded by tuition fees, to ensure that students receive value-for-money from the finance it provides – and which they must eventually pay back.

Jobs, skills and social justice are what drives our higher education reforms. By legislating on what courses should cost and the outcomes students should expect, we are ensuring the sustainability and efficacy of the market. The challenge is for institutions to anticipate student needs and outcomes, and adapt their courses accordingly.

One example is checking the rapid rise in foundation years in classroom-based subjects, such as business and management. We were concerned that lower delivery cost, rather than student need, was driving this growth. That’s why we’ve announced that from next year, we will reduce the maximum tuition fees and loans for foundation years in classroom-based subjects to £5,760.

This lower fee limit represents a fairer deal for students.

I believe this comes back to social justice.

I’m glad to say that we have the highest completion rate in the OECD.

But all courses that cost this much should have good continuation, completion and progression.

Why should only those in-the-know, who apply for the right courses, go on to reap the greatest rewards from their HE investment? While others paying the same money receive poorer teaching with poorer outcomes. Everyone should be able to approach this market clear-eyed about what they can expect for their time and money.      

Disruptors of HE and tertiary education – Institutes of Technology and the Dyson Institute

The second challenge is that presented by the new disruptors to higher education.

Institutions that ensuring that students’ studies at university boost to their professional lives afterwards.

The movement to link degrees with graduate jobs is exemplified by the Dyson institute of engineering and technology. As the first private employer in the country to be granted its own degree-awarding powers, the institute has streamlined students’ route to their graduate roles. They believe it’s worth teaching and awarding their own degrees, because it’s clearly the best way to get the candidates they need. And they’re not short of applicants vying for places! I commend Dyson’s extraordinary investment in their campus, where students are reaping the rewards of their work-focussed programmes. Everyone involved knows it’s worth their while.

On a regional level, our government-backed Institutes of Technology (IoTs) are also challenging the status quo. As collaborations between business, HE and FE, they are a fast-track to good jobs.  They provide higher technical training in STEM specialisms, using the industry-standard equipment that colleges and training providers find prohibitively expensive. IoTs are employer-led, offering specialised courses tailored to local business needs, for local students. These multi-way relationships benefit all concerned, including the universities. Undergraduates who’ve experienced IoTs’ unique employer relationships arrive in their first job with higher occupational competency than traditional degree students.

Degree Apprenticeships

The third challenge for HE is degree apprenticeships.

They epitomise jobs, skills and social justice by eroding the false divide between further and higher education. Maintaining partition does nothing for either sector – particularly when there is so much to be gained from collaborating.

Degree apprenticeships allow universities to reach students who could not otherwise afford undergraduate study. They offer a unique package of earning while learning at world-leading universities, and working for some of Britain’s top employers. 94% of Level 6 degree-apprentices go onto work or further training upon completion, with 93% in sustained employment. And all with no student finance to repay. With 170 to choose from, degree apprenticeships are opening-up professions previously closed to those not studying a traditional degree – a brilliant outcome which speaks for itself.

What do degree apprenticeships have in common with the previous challenge – the disruptor institutes? They’re about preparing students for the world of work, so they’re ready to grab it with both hands.

Many of you agree with me on how important this is. The University of East London encourages every student to do a work placement, no matter what they’re studying. Teesside University had over 2,000 degree-level apprentices on roll last year. And Warwick University’s Vice-Chancellor, Prof. Stuart Croft, has said he’d like 10% of his student body to be degree apprentices within the next decade. I applaud this, and encourage others to follow his lead. But I want a time to come when degree apprentices match the number of academic students on campus.

I don’t see why we can’t get there. Degree-level apprenticeships have enjoyed year-on-year growth since their introduction, and now made-up 14% of all apprenticeships. But we need to diversify beyond the programmes that have fuelled expansion. That’s why I’ve made £40 million available for degree apprenticeship growth in the next two years - to get new courses off the ground, and engage with new candidates and businesses.

It will take time, but the demand is already there! UCAS reports huge interest in these courses.

The lifelong learning entitlement, and what it means for HE

The fourth challenge is the lifelong learning entitlement.

William Beveridge said of adult education:

The door of learning should not shut for anyone at 18, or at any time.

Ignorance to its present extent is not only unnecessary, but dangerous.

To open wide the door of learning we will expand student finance in 2025, creating parity between higher and technical education. The loan entitlement will be equivalent to four years of higher education funding (£37,000 in today’s fees) to use throughout a person’s working life.

As well as conventional higher technical or degree level studies, it will be redeemable against high-value modular courses such as higher technical qualifications. HTQs are designed in collaboration with employers, giving students confidence that they provide the required skills for associated careers.

This will galvanise people to train, retrain, and upskill across their careers, fitting shorter courses around their personal commitments. Like getting on and off a train, learners will be able to alight and board their post-school education when it suits them, rather than being confined to a single ticket. These are the students of the future, a new market seeking high quality tuition that universities are well-placed to provide.

AI and the fourth industrial revolution

The fifth and final challenge is Artificial Intelligence and the fourth industrial revolution.

It is difficult to comprehend how much the world will change in the working lives of today’s undergraduates - much as it would have been difficult to explain the internet to our younger selves. Eventually, almost every daily transaction and interaction will have a digital archetype.

The government is taking a proactive approach to AI research, with HE playing a pivotal role. The department for science, innovation and technology has funded over 2,600 postgraduate scholarships for underrepresented students to study AI and data science. Since 2018, UK Research and Innovation has invested £217 million in 24 Centres for doctoral training across the country, supporting over 1,500 PhDs. This investment is creating a new generation of researchers, developing AI usage for areas like healthcare and climate change.

The fourth industrial revolution is already underway, creating new jobs and extinguishing others. Universities UK estimates that we’ll need 11 million extra graduates by 2023 to fill newly-created roles. Unit for Future Skills’ research shows that professional occupations are more exposed to AI, particularly clerical work in law, finance and business management.

To build a workforce for this revolution, we need to expose undergraduates to real-world work whilst building a culture of lifelong learning and re-training.

Sophie Scholl and antisemitism

I want to turn now to someone else who, like William Beveridge, was trying to make the world a better place in 1942. Someone who ultimately paid for it with her life.

My political hero is a young woman called Sophie Scholl. Again, I expect 20th Century historians will recognise the name. She was a member of the White Rose resistance group who distributed anti-Nazi leaflets in Germany. She was a university student in Munich, where her final act of defiance led to her arrest and execution.

The White Rose called on citizens to resist the Nazis and denounced the murder of Jewish people. But Sophie wasn’t Jewish - one of the reasons I admire her so much. She didn’t lose her life through any self-interest. She and her comrades knew what was happening was wrong, and did something about it.

So why mention Sophie today? Because the antisemitism in our universities this autumn has been horrific. Since the terrorist attack by Hamas on Israel, the University Jewish Chaplaincy has documented threatening door-knocking - “we know where you live” - verbal and physical abuse, graffiti, Palestinian flags draped over Jewish students’ cars..

I have welcomed statements condemning antisemitism from vice chancellors across the country. But we need to be proactive, not just reactive. That’s why the secretary of state and I have written twice to universities on this. And why we’re looking introduce an antisemitism charter to give teeth to the IHRA Working Definition of Antisemitism.

Sophie Scholl once said that the real damage is done by “those with no sides and no causes… Those who don’t like to make waves - or enemies.”

I want Sophie Scholls to exist in every university. Non-Jews prepared to stand-up for their Jewish friends, who’s done nothing to deserve the stigma and hatred they’ve endured.

Government can only do so much. Action against antisemitism needs to come from within.

I‘ve laid-out 5 - or rather 6 - challenges to you today.

They are substantial, but I have full faith in your ability to meet them.

While it’s right that the government holds the sector to account, your universities are an enormous source of national pride. You contribute £130 billion a year to the economy, supporting three quarters of a million jobs. The Liverpool universities here alone contribute £2.7 billion, and support nearly 19,000 jobs.

I want to thank you again - all of you - for making our system the envy of the world.

Department for Education
The Rt Hon Robert Halfon MP