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Sunak promises ‘no more rip-off degrees’ and A-level reform

 Image: The Conservative Party (Dominic Lipinski CCHQ / Parsons Media) [CC BY 2.0], via Flickr

Conservative conference: Leadership speech lays out plans for broader 16-18 qualification while knocking university courses

Prime minister Rishi Sunak has announced an ambition for what he called an Advanced British Standard certificate that would replace A-levels and T-levels for school leavers. The first T-levels were only awarded in the summer of 2022.

Speaking towards the end of his keynote speech at the Conservative Party conference in Manchester on 4 October, Sunak outlined his hopes for education, including making the Whitehall department the focus of future comprehensive spending reviews. “Education is the closest thing we have to a silver bullet,” he said, referring to concerns for economic growth and productivity in the UK.

Sunak said the government will stop universities offering low-value, “rip-off degrees”. Earlier this year, the prime minister announced a “crackdown” on higher education courses that do not lead to graduate-level employment.

Universities UK chief executive Vivienne Stern criticised Sunak for “talking down universities”.

“He risks putting people off who would stand to be benefit if they did go,” Stern said. “This political rhetoric is not in the interests of students, or the economic prospects of the country as a whole. We should be expanding opportunities and not talking down what is a national success story.”

Broader study

Sunak also set out plans for a five-subject baccalaureate-style qualification through which all school pupils would study maths until age 18, with students spending a third more time in the classroom than they do now. The move would have big implications for how universities recruit and teach undergraduates.

With a general election expected in the next 12 months, it is all but impossible that the Advanced British Standard will be introduced during this parliament.

To provide more teachers for a broader curriculum, Sunak said that bonuses of £30,000 over five years would be available to attract and retain specialists. This would also have a knock-on effect on initial teacher training programmes in universities.

The prime minister said his proposed 16-18 curriculum would end the divide between academic and vocational routes, replacing both A-levels and T-levels, providing “parity of esteem”. T-levels were launched by the government in 2020, with the first qualifications awarded in 2022.

T-levels, the responsibility of Robert Halfon, the minister for skills, further education and higher education, are scheduled for a wider rollout in schools and colleges from this academic year. A-levels were first introduced in 1951 to replace the broader Higher School Certificate.

Schools and colleges in Scotland have long taught a broad curriculum of higher qualifications for 16-18 year olds. 

‘Tinkering around the edges’

On the proposed Advanced British Standard, Stern said reforming post-16 qualifications would have “significant implications for how education is delivered at university”, adding that it is “vital that the suite of qualifications on offer deliver the knowledge, skills and opportunity young people need to succeed”.

Jo Grady, general secretary of the University and College Union, said the planned reforms represented “a further example of a government out of touch, that is tinkering around the edges rather than offering genuine support to students or staff”.

“Ministers should be listening to teachers, not pulling ideas out of the hat as a desperate way to shore up support for a failing government,” she said.