Rishi Sunak has promised to phase out university degrees that do not improve students’ “earning potential”, create a Russell Group of world-class technical colleges and introduce a UK Baccalaureate which would prevent 16-year-olds dropping out of maths and English.
The Tory leadership hopeful said his plans to reform post-16 education marked “a significant step towards equality between vocational and academic education”.
If he becomes the next prime minister, Sunak will strengthen networks of technical institutions and their links with industry, as well as give 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 of high social value.
In an apparent attempt to appeal to the right, Sunak’s campaign said he would also fast-track the Higher Education (Freedom of Expression) Bill, which is in the House of Lords.
The government has argued the bill is needed to tackle growing intolerance at universities, but opponents have said it aims to solve a non-existent problem that could protect hate speech.
Sunak also pledged to improve professional development for teachers, commit to plans to open 75 new independent schools announced by the government in June, and give school trusts a “responsible holiday” for two years after hiring underperforming schools.
He would also work to expand the use of artificial intelligence and digital technology in classrooms and to reduce the workload of teachers.
Sunak said: “A good education is the closest we get to a silver bullet when it comes to making people’s lives better.
“These proposals represent a significant step towards equality between vocational education and academic education. And they will take a tougher approach to college programs 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 leveraging technology and improving the quality of education 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 make sure that’s what they get.”
The former chancellor would also set up a new UK matriculation exam, which would require students to continue studying core subjects such as maths and English until they leave school at 18.
In an interview with the Times, he criticized the “too narrow specialisation” of the current curriculum, which he said does not prepare young people for “tomorrow’s economy”.
“We are almost unique in the Western world, for an advanced economy and all high-performing education systems, in allowing people to drop out of maths and stop studying their mother tongue at 16,” he told the paper.
“In Germany, France, Asia, young people study maths until they are 18, and the way a modern economy works, I think it will hold us back if our young people don’t have these skills.”
After private schooling at Winchester College, where he was head boy, and a degree in politics, philosophy and economics at Oxford, Sunak earned an MBA at Stanford University in California.
His Tory leader rival, Liz Truss, has billed herself as “education prime minister” with a plan to replace failing academies with new free schools and a promise that students with top A-level grades will be automatically invited to an interview at Oxford or Cambridge – which has raised questions about whether the timing of the academic year should be changed.