Rishi Sunak has vowed to phase out university degrees that do not improve students’ “earning potential”, create a Russell Group of world-class technical colleges and introduce a British baccalaureate that would prevent 16-year-olds from dropping maths and English.
The Tory leadership hopeful said his plans to reform post-16 education market “a significant stride towards parity of esteem between vocational and academic education”.
If he becomes the next prime minister, Sunak would strengthen networks of technical institutions and their links with industry, as well as giving them powers to award degrees, his campaign said.
The former chancellor would assess university degrees through their drop-out rates, numbers in graduate jobs and salary thresholds, with exceptions for nursing and other courses with high social value.
In an apparent bid to appeal to the right, Sunak’s campaign said he would also expedite the higher education (freedom of speech) bill, which is in the House of Lords.
The government has argued that the bill is needed to tackle growing intolerance in universities, but opponents have said it aims to address a problem that does not exist and could protect hate speech.
Sunak also pledged to improve professional development for teachers, commit to plans to open 75 new free schools announced by the government in June, and give school trusts an “accountability holiday” for two years after taking on underperforming schools.
He would also work to expand the use of artificial intelligence and digital technology in classrooms and to reduce teachers’ workloads.
Sunak said: “A good education is the closest thing we have to a silver bullet when it comes to making people’s lives better.
“These proposals represent a significant stride towards parity of esteem between vocational and academic education. And they will take a tougher approach to university degrees that saddle students with debt, without improving their earning potential.
“I will also take bold, practical steps to build on the successful Conservative education reforms of the past decade by harnessing technology and improving the quality of teaching in underperforming areas.
“Every child deserves a world-class education and, if I become prime minister, I will make it my mission from day one to ensure that’s what they get.”
The former chancellor would also create a new British baccalaureate which would require pupils to continue studying core subjects such as maths and English until they finish school at 18.
In an interview with the Times, he criticized the “overly narrow specialisation” of the current curriculum, which he said does not prepare young people for the “economy of tomorrow”.
“We are almost unique in the western world, for an advanced economy and all high-performing education systems, in allowing people to drop maths and stop studying their native language at 16,” he told the newspaper.
“In Germany, France, Asia, youngsters are studying maths all the way to 18 and in the way a modern economy works, I think it’s going to hold us back if our youngsters don’t have those skills.”
After private schooling at Winchester College, where he was head boy, and a degree in politics, philosophy and economics at Oxford, Sunak took an MBA at Stanford University in California.
His Tory leadership rival, Liz Truss, has pitched herself as the “education prime minister” with a plan to replace failing academies with new free schools, and a promise that pupils with top A-level grades would get an automatic invitation to an interview at Oxford or Cambridge – which has raised questions about whether the timing of the academic year would have to be altered.