Navigating the Crossroads: A Reflection of the Conservative Party Conference's Emphasis on Post-16 Education and Reforming Traditional Degrees

In the heart of political discourse and strategic policy deliberations, the Conservative Party Conference convened to discuss critical issues facing the nation. I had the privilege of representing Policy Connect at the conference this year – my first ever party conference.  

Among the numerous topics considered, a prominent focus emerged on post-16 education and more specifically, the skills agenda. Various panellists spoke about the value of further education (FE), especially applauding the growing portfolio of vocational and technical qualifications. The aim was to align education better with the needs of a rapidly evolving job market, with many identifying apprenticeships and vocational education as potential solutions. It is certainly an opportune moment for the Government to celebrate the various successes and advantages of FE colleges, following the Education Secretary’s funding boost announcement for pay in colleges three months ago. The Prime Minister’s announcement of more funding to recruit and retain college lecturers across FE colleges is a positive development. 

My team is especially delighted to hear this as we’ve worked to elevate the FE workforce issue earlier this year through a roundtable event with Rt Hon Sir John Hayes and Toby Perkins MP (who was then, the Shadow Minister for Further Education and Skills). The roundtable called for a sustainable funding scheme to provide stability for the FE sector, and it seems that policy is developing in that direction.  

Despite fervent discussions on the benefits of an effective FE system, I also witnessed a political narrative strengthen over the past week: the aim to ‘crack down’ on traditional university degrees. Conference delegates called for reform across the higher education (HE) sector, possibly against the backdrop of the recent Industry and Regulators Committee report on the underperformance of the Office for Students.  

The Prime Minister was especially critical of universities, reiterating his commitment to impose strict controls and regulations on university courses that fail to deliver strong graduate outcomes (defined of course, by the number of students who have entered employment within the first 15 months of degree completion). Given the various challenges facing the HE sector (e.g. workforce issues; stagnant wages; automation and more), we question the narrative that universities must deliver on ‘value-for-money’ degrees that guarantee graduate-level employment.  

As I was attending the conference as a representative of a cross-party think tank, it is important to note that these proposals have garnered both support and opposition from stakeholders across the education sector. Advocates commended the Conservative Party for prioritising education reform and adapting to the changing needs of the job market. They believe this forward-thinking approach can foster a more skilled workforce and drive economic growth. Opponents, including various sector leaders and practitioners, are concerned about the unintended consequences that may arise from reform to qualifications and curricula without a clear and structured strategy.  

We at Policy Connect are supporting the development of inquiries focussed on both the HE and FE sector. The Higher Education Commission is currently collecting evidence for the ongoing inquiry on digitally enhanced blended learning, and the Skills Commission recently launched an inquiry into a skills system agenda for the next Parliament. For more information, please get in touch with the alyson.hwang [at] (Education and Skills) team.