What does the Journey to a Million mean for student progression and the choices they have in England?

Rt. Hon Robert Halfon, Minister for Skills, Apprenticeships and Higher Education, examines what increased competition means for student progression in England.
UCAS is an organisation we should be really proud of. It does extraordinary work, as an independent charity, to help students reach their next educational stage. Alongside my department, UCAS recognises the changing landscape around the Journey to a Million higher education applicants by 2030. We are working together so that the needs of this bulging demographic can be met in a way that will massively benefit applicants, employers, our skills needs and the economy. We agree that post-16 education should be a broad suite of options, rather than a narrow pathway that necessarily ends with a mortar board. That’s why our aim is to make it as easy as possible for young people to understand all their education and training options, and help them take the next steps to progress to fulfilling work.

Jobs, skills and social justice

It is remarkable that we are expecting a million young people to be applying to UCAS by the end of the decade. When people think of UCAS, they think of universities. I want young people to understand all their options, and choose the best path for them. That may be university, but it may equally be further education or an apprenticeship. As the Minister for Skills, Apprenticeships and Higher Education, I do not set any of these apart from one another – and neither does UCAS.

I am determined that all post-16 options will serve society’s need for skills, jobs and social justice. Through their later education, students should acquire the right skills to power their careers and the economy. Degrees, apprenticeships at all levels, and Higher Technical Qualifications should all lead to rewarding careers. And the entire system must advance social justice by propelling disadvantaged applicants up the ladder of opportunity. They, above all, need to gain sustainable work with good earning potential. 

A million applicants to higher education means a million young people seeking high-quality outcomes to kickstart their working lives. It presents a chance to harness this talent to help the economy grow. It also means heightened competition, which could squeeze out applicants already battling disadvantage on the threshold of adulthood. We have big plans to ensure that the choices presented on the UCAS Hub will expand to meet this growing demand. The platform will tailor its offer to individual students, sign-posting options according to their interests and circumstances. This will open up opportunities for applicants who wouldn't otherwise have access to them via a traditional first degree.

Degree apprenticeships

Part of the answer to the growing demand for quality qualifications are degree apprenticeships. I often say ‘degree apprenticeships’ are my two favourite words in the English language. They combine the best of vocational and academic education, allowing young people to earn while they learn and remain free of student debt. We know the demand is there, with around half of UCAS applicants saying they are interested in this route. The number of degree-level apprenticeships is up 10% on 2020/21, with 37,800 starts last academic year. We’ve seen year-on-year growth in these qualifications, with 170,900 starts since their introduction in the 2014/2015 academic year. However, there is much more to do to meet current and rising demand. My department is working with higher education institutions to increase supply of both vacancies from employers, and applications from young people.

How our work with UCAS will serve these aims and one million annual applicants

UCAS understands that the best way to serve future students is not to limit their platform, but to expand it. That’s why we are working together to provide applicants with apprenticeship options alongside degree courses, including career routes to show what return they can expect from investing their time and/or money in these choices. 

From Autumn 2023, apprenticeships will sit alongside degree courses on the UCAS Hub, with subject searches supplying related degree and apprenticeship options simultaneously. Presenting different choices side by side will help applicants consider the type of course that would suit them, including the duration of training or study required, affordability, and what job it’s likely to lead to. 

The full range of apprenticeships will be displayed — from level 2 to degree level. The Department for Education will share gov.uk apprenticeship vacancies with UCAS, and our expertise in working with the employers that offer them. Alongside the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education, we will draw on our respective strengths to provide the best experience for learners and employers. 

From Autumn 2024, young people will be able to apply for apprenticeships via the UCAS Hub. UCAS will act as a gateway for post-16 options, with tailored routes set out to guide users to the courses that are right for them. We want the service to be inviting and easy to use — so that no matter the applicant’s background, they can quickly get to grips with where their choices could take them and how to apply. 

This is part of a broader vision to better integrate the skills education our economy is crying out for into the formal systems that direct applicants towards and through the jobs market. This means creating a one-stop-shop, where citizens can explore their career and training options at any point in their lives. It will provide quality advice on training and re-training, so that no one need navigate a forest of different services to find what they need to improve their employability. It will complement the delivery of comprehensive career guidance in schools. Students will be provided with high-quality information on all post-16 options, including careers pathways and next steps required to progress.

There will always be a place for studying Middle English and Pure Mathematics. But routes that empower students to get stuck-into skilled trades, or build technical qualifications to advance the nation’s industries, should be accorded the same prestige. The one-size-fits-all approach traps students’ aptitudes within old fashioned expectations. Giving apprenticeships and degrees equal prominence on the UCAS Hub will help to bring about a rightful parity in their status.

The Universities, Colleges, Apprenticeships and Skills Service

UCAS and its precursors stretch back over 60 years. The original Universities Central Council on Admissions created a centralised system for applying to university, replacing individual applications to institutions (and the unscrutinised partiality that accompanied that). 

My ambition is that UCAS will eventually stand for the Universities, Colleges, Apprenticeships and Skills service. On the journey to a million applicants by the end of the decade, we are working together to renew its aim to bring equity and clarity to post-school education. Our plans will expand both students’ choices on the site, and the chances they’ll have to progress in knowledge, qualifications and subsequent careers.

Rt. Hon Robert Halfon

Minister for Skills, Apprenticeships and Higher Education

Robert Halfon was appointed Minister of State at the Department for Education on 26 October 2022. He was previously Minister of State (Minister for Apprenticeships and Skills) at the Department for Education from 17 July 2016 to 12 June 2017. Robert was elected Conservative MP for Harlow on 6 May 2010. 

Political career: He was Co-Chairman and then Vice Chairman of the Further Education, Skills and Life-Long Learning All-Party Parliamentary Skills Group. 

Robert has also served as: 

  • Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Chancellor of the Exchequer - July 2014 to May 2015 
  • Minister without Portfolio at the Cabinet Office - May 2015 to July 2016 

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