Minister for Skills, Apprenticeships and Higher Education, Robert Halfon addressed the National Education Opportunities Network's Summer Symposium.
It’s great to be back in Exeter for the first time since I was re-appointed as Higher Education and Skills Minister. And in such great company! To be addressing the organisation of professionals for widening access to higher education is to address a crowd that shares my outlook. I want to thank Professor Graeme Atherton for inviting me here today, and for founding NEON back in 2012. The attendance today illustrates how access and participation has evolved from a peripheral tick-box exercise, to a central professional endeavour that all higher education (HE) institutions should take seriously.
As far as I am concerned, social justice is fundamental to higher education. Universities should exist to facilitate the studies, progression and graduation of all students – including those from disadvantaged backgrounds - so they can go on to get good jobs and pursue worthwhile careers.
Today, I want to talk to you about the golden thread of social justice that runs through my brief of Higher Education and skills. But I’d like to say at the outset that I’m not offering this summary of measures as the complete solution.
While areas of deprivation and low achievement still exist, there will still be more work to do. And I really welcome your insights on how we’re doing. When it comes to sharing opportunities fairly, we haven’t reached the point where we can lean on our spades and say ‘job done’. Access and participation measures are not about patting ourselves on the back. Social justice demands we remain open to how we could all do better – and I include myself in that.
Skills education is incredibly important to social justice – because gaining recognised skills helps a person succeed in the labour market when they don’t have other things that can help you get ahead, such as an education that maximises academic performance, family connections or an understanding of different work sectors.
That’s why skills make-up the greater part of the Ladder of Opportunity. This framework outlines what we need for the skills system to support people of all backgrounds to ascend to the top rung: well-paid, secure and sustainable employment. This should be an attainable goal for everyone, not just those who start with some advantages in life. One of the pillars that holds-up the Ladder is opportunities and social justice. These need to be our foremost considerations in making quality, skilled employment widespread.
And I won’t deny that there’s an economic argument for this too. Delivering skills for the country is central to driving the economy. Skilled jobs have the potential to contribute 1/3 of our future productivity growth. In short, there’s no downside to upskilling the nation.
The Chancellor has his 4 ‘E’s for economic growth and prosperity: Enterprise, Education and Employment Everywhere. His focus is productivity – but we can’t have that without maximising opportunities to reach widespread abilities. The Lifelong Loan Entitlement will be a major catalyst for broadening the opportunity to train throughout a lifetime, which I’ll come to later.
For now, given that ‘three is the magic number’ of this conference,
I have three ‘P’s for social justice – Place, Privilege and Prestige.
Let’s start with Place. Social justice is fundamentally rooted in the places people come from – where they grow up, gain their education and find a job.
A virtuous cycle of growth can have a remarkable effect on a place. An area with great education and skills training will attract businesses looking for their future workforce. They set-up and invest in the area, which in turn creates more jobs and higher tax receipts - allowing for higher investment in local public services.
Harlow College has an advanced manufacturing centre and renewable energy facility, which is doing exactly that – attracting relevant businesses to the skills pipeline it has created.
That is why this government is focused on delivering for places that need a sustainable jobs and skills ecosystem. Last year’s Levelling Up white paper included a clear skills mission: by 2030, 200,000 more people each year will be completing high-quality skills training in England. But it’s not enough to raise skills levels if it only re-enforces current pockets of economic prosperity. So this number will include 80,000 annual course completions in the lowest skilled areas.
Our 38 local skills improvement plans will support this, covering the whole of England. Each plan is led by an employer-representative body, ensuring that skills provision matches the needs of local employers. Wherever they are in the country, learners will have confidence that the skills they’re developing match those sought by local businesses.
In all places, people need high-quality careers advice from an early age to help them fulfil their potential. This is the first rung of the Ladder of Opportunity, the beginning of their journey to good employment. We have worked hard to lay the foundations of a coherent careers system, with strong collaboration between educators, training providers and employers.
The Careers and Enterprise Company work through local Careers Hubs to support schools, colleges and training providers to develop and improve their careers provision. Part of the battle is raising awareness of what’s on offer, so that young people aren’t given a false, binary choice of work or university. Our Apprenticeship Support and Knowledge programme communicates the benefits of apprenticeships, T Levels and other technical learning routes to older school pupils. It’s available nationwide but focusses on disadvantaged areas - places where its message could make the most difference.
Later in life, the National Careers Service can provide free online guidance. But it also has community-based advisors to provide personal support to adults with recognised barriers to finding work. This includes career routes guidance on apprenticeships, traineeships, university and other technical and vocational routes. Last year it celebrated supporting 1 million adults into a job or learning outcome in 2022. These local, one-to-one interventions make a real difference to the paths taken by those who most need guidance to get back into education, training or work.
Overall, we are determined that ‘place’ should strongly determine where additional funding is channelled. So, for example, where young people are taking the new T Levels in an economically deprived area, providers now receive additional funding to support their attainment.
Focussing on place is absolutely necessary for social justice, but it is not sufficient. Because within places, there can be disparities in the opportunities available to different groups – such as those with disabilities or learning difficulties.
My second P is privilege. Because the privilege of quality education and training opportunities should just not be for the privileged few. It should be available for everyone, regardless of their background or circumstance.
Schools play a part in this, as I’ve described - but employers, FE colleges, universities and training institutions also need to reach down into their communities to lift the veil on post-16 routes. We’ve seen some great practice right here in this city, with Exeter University’s tutoring pilot run by undergraduates in St James School. This saw a 100% improvement in writing ability following a nine week intervention - a great example of universities working closely with schools to raise attainment. It is crucial that pupils are supported to achieve to a high standard before they’re required to make choices about their future.
You’ll be aware that the Office for Students recently launched the Equality of Opportunity Risk Register, with 12 key risks to equality of opportunity across the student lifecycle. These have used evidence to determine where interventions can really move the dial on social justice. They’ll be an important tool for designing future initiatives to broaden access to HE, and I look forward to providers rewriting their upcoming Access and Participation plans to incorporate them.
We should recognise where progress is being made. While a substantial gap remains between the most and least advantaged students, more disadvantaged English 18-year-olds than ever secured a university place last year. And black pupils have seen the greatest increase in the proportion going to university by age 19 – 62.1% in 2020-21, compared to 44.1% in 2009-10.
In 2020, we met our targets to increase the proportion of apprentices who have learning difficulties and disabilities, or are from an ethnic minority background. This encouraging trend is continuing; halfway through this academic year, both groups’ apprenticeships starts had risen again by nearly 15% on last year.
We want to further build on this momentum, so that no young person rules themselves out of positive future prospects because of their background or personal circumstances.
Young people with learning difficulties and disabilities may need extra support to manage their training and complete their apprenticeship. Following some fantastic examples, we want to work with providers and employers so that they can offer more mentoring opportunities for these apprentices.
My ambition is for every apprentice with a disability to benefit from access to a suitable mentor throughout their apprenticeship. This is why I am today announcing a new mentoring pilot, where a group of trailblazing providers will commit to expanding their mentoring offer to all disabled apprentices, enabled through a bespoke training and support offer. The pilot, which will launch later this year, will mean we can better understand what works for this cohort and set a clear direction of travel to expand the mentoring offer more widely across the sector.
We are also investing up to £18 million to build capacity in the Supported Internships Programme, which hosts 16 to 24-year-olds with SEND in a substantial work placement. We aim to double the number of these internships to around 5,000 per year by 2025, supporting more disabled young people into employment. Again, this is about targeted support that brings opportunities to people who might otherwise be reluctant to take them. The Chancellor additionally allocated up to £3 million in the Spring Budget to test whether this might be an effective model for other learners.
Apprenticeships offer a package of wages, training and sector induction which can be instrumental for a young person who has had a very difficult start in life. That’s why from August, we will increase the apprenticeships care-leavers’ bursary from £1,000 to £3,000. This allows these young people to start a new career, confident they can cover the living costs usually met by family. This is on top of the £1,000 available to both the employer and training provider who take on a care-experienced apprentice - making a total of £5,000 additional funding available to boost outcomes for this group.
So I’ve described measures to spread opportunity across the country, and extend the privilege of quality education and training to everyone, regardless of background.
But those interventions are not enough. We also need to do something that is in some ways more difficult - to revolutionise the way skills training is perceived.
The perception is often that vocational education, such as apprenticeships, are somehow worth less than academic education or a university degree. This has always struck me as odd. These courses and training options give learners transferable skills that they can take to a hungry jobs market. Regarding them as ‘lesser’ is both illogical and slightly absurd. Anyone who wants to employ skilled people - whether in a restaurant, a silicon chip factory, or to rewire their kitchen - cannot afford to be dismissive of this education.
That is why my third P – prestige – is crucial. I want technical education and training routes to have parity of prestige with academic routes. For parents to want their child to do an apprenticeship as much as they want them to go to university. For students to be excited at the prospect of learning a real technical skill that can get them a job. And for teachers to value pupils’ success equally, whether they accomplish a T Level or three A levels.
I really believe degree apprenticeships can bridge this gap in a way that other initiatives haven’t managed - through their name, their course content, and the institutions that run them. As I said recently in another speech, HE needs to allow FE to leverage some of its prestige. And that is exactly what will happen if more great universities such as Exeter collaborate with industry to create new degree apprenticeships. I was very honoured to speak at the graduation of the first Exeter University Degree Apprentices back in 2021.
We’ve seen year-on-year growth in these prestigious courses, with over 185,000 starts since their introduction – but we want to go much further. Up to £40 million will be available over the next two financial years [2023-24 and 2024-25] for Higher Education providers to expand degree apprenticeships and widen access to them. This funding will enable institutions to deliver degree apprenticeships for the first time, and broaden the existing range - prioritising new routes to professions previously reserved for traditional graduates.
The Office for Students will conduct a competitive bidding process for funding later this year. I urge everyone here to look into this for your institution. Great universities like this one have already gone before you, demonstrating the success and social justice these courses can bring about.
I also want to end the perception that FE colleges are somehow second-rate institutions.
And that to finally emerge from the shadow of academia, there must be a ‘Skills Oxbridge’ we can point to. I have great respect for the academic excellence of Oxford and Cambridge, but we need to stop using them as a benchmark for everything else.
I have visited colleges all over the country, from Harlow to Loughborough to Oldham - and I’m looking forward to visiting Exeter College tomorrow. I’ve seen the great work they’re doing – how for example, state-of-the-art T Levels in healthcare are creating a pipeline for future NHS medical staff.
FE is supplying education solutions to real-world challenges. Its great institutions should be celebrated on their own merits, for preparing their students for good jobs and great careers.
The way people access further and higher education also plays a part in how it is perceived. From next year, young people will be able to apply for apprenticeships through UCAS alongside undergraduate degree applications, putting technical and vocational education on an equal, accessible footing with academic routes. Our eventual aim is a one-stop-shop, where everyone can explore their career and training options at any point in their lives.
To further break down the barriers between HE and FE, we are introducing the Lifelong Loan Entitlement to unify education finance under a single system. From 2025, financial support equivalent to 4 years post-18 education (£37,000 in today’s fees) will be available for individuals to use over their working lives. Learning and paying by module will present new opportunities for those unable to commit to a long course. Like getting on and off a train, learners can alight and board their post-school education when it suits them, building qualifications at their own pace. Each learner’s personal account will display their remaining education finance balance, but also act as a portal to guide their learning pathway.
The LLE’s positive impact is likely to be greatest for disadvantaged students, who are 9 percentage points less likely than their peers to have a sustained education destination after 16-18 study. As a traditional three-year degree is not always a viable option, the Lifelong Loan Entitlement will provide an alternative to train, retrain and upskill, alongside other opportunities in the Government’s broader skills offer.
I hope I’ve been able to demonstrate that channelling education measures to bring about social justice is a real mission for me. It’s not just about an ‘uplift in spending’ here, or a token initiative there. A coherent strategy runs through my department’s work, where we carefully consider what the key barriers are and how we address them - in order to spread opportunity to everyone, regardless of their background.
And aside from the social good we can accomplish, there is a really positive story to tell about the tremendous technical and economic power of skills education in this country. Further Education is not second best – it’s at the centre of innovation, preparing young people for the jobs of the future. There are now almost 160 freshly developed apprenticeship standards at degree level, attached to roles at companies like Goldman Sachs and BAE systems.
I know you are as keen as I am to bring about a future where education and social justice are synonymous. To make sure that talent from every background can find a path up the Ladder of Opportunity, we will persist with the 3 Ps:
Ensuring that every place has skills training opportunities available.
Spreading the privilege of quality education and training to everyone, not just the few.
And raising the prestige of technical education routes to be valued equally with academic ones.