September and October are party conference season. These unique gatherings are both loved and loathed in equal measure. For party leaders, they offer the opportunity to speak directly with party loyalists and to set out their desired direction for the country. For party members, conference season provides the chance to collar your MP, question Cabinet Ministers and help shape policy through discussion and debate.
It would not be an overstatement to say that there is something for everyone at these gatherings, although the outcomes can often be harder to decipher. Observing this year’s Conservative Party Conference, it is apparent that enhancing skills and retraining opportunities are high on the agenda.
For too long, the emphasis has been placed on sending people to university rather than equipping them with the skills and experience to succeed. Over the years, admissions to universities have risen while the value from gaining a degree has declined. It could be said that the academic value that so often drove people to university, has now been replaced by the draw of a ‘university experience’.
That university experience is costing students and taxpayers alike. The average level of student debt now sits at £35k, and interest can reach up to 4.1% depending on your earnings. This is not a call to scrap tuition fees but is a call to consider the value of university and the benefit it may or may not have on a future career.
So, there are two solutions.
First, improve the value of university degrees. This is already underway by placing more emphasis on STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects. The need for more engineers, doctors, coders and statisticians is well documented. But if we want to reach our targets and create a future workforce that can keep Britain competitive and innovative then we need incentivisation. Offering free degree courses to those who study medicine and asking them to serve a five-year term in the NHS post-university would encourage students to step forward; it would bolster our NHS and it would, in all likelihood, help research and development around medical science. Such initiatives could even be supported through the private sector.
The second requires us to offer opportunities beyond universities. The Prime Minister’s speech at conference mentioned skills no fewer than ten times. His introduction of T-levels and Lifelong Loan Entitlements seeks to address the UK’s persistent technical skills shortages. Already, South Devon is bucking the trend in this area with 2% more students in apprenticeships and employment than the national average. The essential ingredient will be to make people aware that a university degree is no longer the key that opens all doors, but instead that work experience and enhancing skills by doing can help you reach your ambitions. For instance, you no longer even need a degree to be a banker, pilot or accountant.
South Devon boasts a multitude of different industries. From boatbuilding to quantum computing to photonics. We have farmers and fishermen as well as hospitality and retail. In one small area, we have a large, diverse job market that offers the opportunity for residents to have long careers in the place in which they were raised.
It is my job to ensure that students in Devon are not only aware of what is on their doorstep, but also that the options are not singular but numerous. What works for one does not have to work for all. Next year, in collaboration with the Local Enterprise Partnership, I will be hosting a local career fair to help exhibit the extraordinary local businesses we have in our midst and demonstrate that university is just one route of many.
To meet the demands of tomorrow we must prepare today. This can be done through a strong and dedicated focus on skills.