No 10 says some courses could be closed entirely under plan to limit number of students doing ‘rip-off’ degrees

No 10 has said some “rip-off” university courses could be closed down under the plans announced by the government today.

The government says it wants to impose a limit on the number of students who can study courses deemed as poor value for money, either because of their drop-out rates or because they don’t help students get good jobs.

But at the No 10 lobby briefing this morning, the PM’s spokesperson said the cap could be as low as zero. He said:

In extremis, recruitment limits could be used to prevent any recruitment to a course.

The OfS [Office for Students] has powers to suspend a provider’s registration or even remove it from their register if they wish, but it’s up to them to decide the scope and nature of any recruitment.

I will post more from the briefing shortly.

Key events

Sunak pays tribute to Ben Wallace after defence secretary says he wants to quit as MP at next election

In his interview for broadcasters this morning Rishi Sunak also paid tribute to Ben Wallace, following the defence secretary’s announcement that he expects to leave cabinet at the next reshuffle and to stand down as an MP at the next election.

Asked if he was sorry to see Wallace go, Sunak replied:

Of course I am … Ben’s been a great defence secretary. I’ve enjoyed working with him and he’s got a track record he can be very proud of.

Sunak also insisted that Wallace’s decision to leave parliament was understandable. He said:

[Wallace has] been in politics and public service for a very long time, and, as he said, he wants to be able to spend more time with his family, and as a dad myself I completely understand and sympathise with that.

Wallace, who is 53, joins a long list of Conservative MPs, some of whom are quite young, who are standing down at the next election, and this trend is partly explained by the despair they feel about their party’s election prospects. But Wallace has been defence secretary for four years under three prime ministers, making him the longest-serving Conservative in the post since Winston Churchill, and so he has more reason than some of the others for thinking it is time to move on.

Sunak claims crackdown on ‘rip off courses’ will make higher education better value for taxpayers

In his clip for broadcasters this morning Rishi Sunak was mostly asked about the policy the government is billing as a “crackdown on rip off university degrees”. Here are the main points.

For many people university is the right answer and it does brilliantly, but actually there are a range of people who are being let down by the current system.

They’re being taken advantage of with low-quality courses that don’t lead to a job that it makes it worth it, leaves them financially worse-off. That’s what we’re clamping down on today – but, at the same time, making sure that young people have a range of fantastic alternative opportunities, whether that be apprentices or higher technical qualifications, for example.

Sunak is only the latest in a long line of senior politicians, from all main parties, who for years have been saying that success in life should not depend on having a good university degree. But generally their children end up going to university anyway, which may be one reason why the message is not cutting through.

  • Sunak brushed aside concerns that the policy would cut revenue for some universities. When this point was put to him, he said what mattered was the “overall financial sustainability” of the university system. He said the policy would make higher education better value for taxpayers. He explained:

I think it’s important that the system is also fair for taxpayers, because ultimately as taxpayers that fund the system – and we’ve got a situation at the moment where around half of people who go to university don’t end up paying back the cost of that degree – that costs the taxpayer money.

So, we need to make sure the system is not just fair for students and they’re getting the right outcome, but it’s also fair for taxpayers.

Part of these reforms clamping down on low-quality courses will improve the overall financial sustainability of the system. And that’s right, right for students, right for the taxpayer.

  • He stressed that it would be for the Office for Students, not the government, to decide what might count as ‘rip off courses”. He said:

What the regulator will do is look at a range of different outcomes for courses. So, what kind of jobs are students going on to, do they complete the course, how much do they earn in later life?

On the basis of all of that, they’ll be able to figure out ‘well, hang on, that course actually isn’t delivering value for money. It’s letting people down and we should not put students on it because we’re letting them down’.

With that information, students can make more informed choices and, at the same time, we’re making it easier for them to find things like apprenticeships.

Rishi Sunak speaking to reporters this morning after a visit to a school in London. Photograph: Alberto Pezzali/AFP/Getty Images

Aslef announces further overtime ban by train drivers

A fresh overtime ban has been announced by train drivers, threatening disruption to services at the height of the summer holidays, PA Media reports. PA says:

Members of Aslef at 15 train operating companies will refuse to work overtime from Monday 31 July to Saturday 5 August in the long-running dispute over pay.

Drivers launched a week-long overtime ban on Monday which the union warned will “seriously” affect services.

Aslef said train companies did not employ enough drivers, which was why they are dependent on rest day working, which the union pointed out was voluntary.

The action will affect Avanti West Coast; Chiltern Railways; Cross Country; East Midlands Railway; Greater Anglia; Great Western Railway; GTR Great Northern Thameslink; Island Line; LNER; Northern Trains; Southeastern; Southern/Gatwick Express; South Western Railway main line; TransPennine Express; and West Midlands Trains.

It will be the fourth week-long ban on overtime since May.

Commenting on the decision, Mick Whelan, Aslef’s general secretary, said:

We don’t want to take this action. We don’t want people to be inconvenienced, but the blame lies with the train companies, and the government which stands behind them, which refuse to sit down and talk to us, and have not made a fair and sensible pay offer to train drivers who have not had one for four years – since 2019 – while prices have soared in that time by more than 12%.

The proposal they made on April 26 of 4% with a further rise dependent, in a naked land grab, on drivers giving up terms and conditions for which we have fought, and negotiated, for years was not designed to be accepted.

We have not heard a word from the employers since then – not a meeting, not a phone call, not a text message, nor an email – for the last 12 weeks, and we haven’t sat down with the government since January 6.

Sunak downplays NAO report saying Boris Johnson’s 40 ‘new’ hospitals pledge, as originally intended, will not be met

Rishi Sunak has recorded an interview for broadcasters this morning. Among other topics, he was asked about the report from the National Audit Office today saying that the government is not likely to deliver the 40 “new” hospitals promised by Boris Johnson at the time of the last election.

Sunak downplayed the NAO findings, saying the report showed that 40 projects were set to be delivered by the end of the decade. He said:

I think we will deliver 40 hospitals by 2030 as we committed to do …

I think if you look at the report, they do say we actually will deliver 40 hospitals by 2030. But that’s just one of the many things that we’re doing for the health service.

The NAO report explains that the 40 hospital projects now on the government’s list for completion by 2030 are not the same as the original 40 announced. Only 32 of those are still on the list covered by this deadline, and only 11 count as “whole new hospitals”, it says.

Minister rejects claim crackdown on ‘rip off degree courses’ amounts to attack on arts and humanities

Rishi Sunak has written an article for the Daily Telegraph this morning defending the government’s plan to limit the number of places for students on what it calls “rip off degree courses”. In it he argues:

Too many of our young people are sold a false dream of going to university only to find they’re enrolled on low-quality courses that don’t offer the skills they need to get a decent job at the end of it.

Contrast that with apprenticeships or other vocational routes. According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, one in five graduates in this country, about 70,000 every year, would be better off financially if they had not gone to university. And despite having studied for several years, one in three graduates are in a job that doesn’t require them to be degree-educated.

Put simply: our young people are being ripped off. They’re being saddled with tens of thousands of pounds of debt from bad degrees that just leave them poorer, and dissuaded from pursuing more vocational options because they are led to believe that university is the only route to success. It’s not fair on them – and it’s not fair on you as taxpayers, forced to pick up a big chunk of the bill despite getting nothing back for our economy.

Sunak is referring to this IFS report, published three years ago, saying “one in five students – or about 70,000 every year – would actually have been better off financially had they not gone to university”.

But, in interviews this morning, Robert Halfon, the education minister, was unable to name any of the degree courses that will be affected by the new cap. Under the plan, the Office for Students will implement the policy, which will start to apply from the 2024-25 academic year.

But Halfon did reject claims that this approach amounted to an attack on arts and humanities courses. When this was put to him, he told Times Radio:

That’s absolutely not the case. Because we’re not saying that particular arts courses are going to have limits. It may be that in some universities there are arts courses that are leading to good jobs.

Robert Halfon
Robert Halfon. Photograph: Daniel Leal-Olivas/PA

Yvette Cooper, the shadow home secretary, was also asked about Keir Starmer’s comments on the two-child benefit cap on ITV’s Good Morning Britain. She firmly rejected the claim that Starmer’s decision to say he would keep the cap meant Labour were the same as the Tories. She said:

I strongly do think there is a massive difference between Labour and the Tories, who have been in power for 13 years and left us with a country that just feels broken, where everything’s gone backwards, everyone is worse off. Labour is setting out an alternative course.

She cited Labour’s plan to introduce breakfast clubs in every primary school in England as one example of what the party would do to address child poverty.

An accommodation barge to house 500 asylum seekers has left its berth in Falmouth, Cornwall, and is expected to head to its destination in Portland, Dorset, PA Media reports. PA says:

The Bibby Stockholm had been due in Portland a month ago, despite resistance from the local council and Tory MP Richard Drax.

But work on the barge had been delayed and it was only this morning that tugs began towing the vessel out of Falmouth harbour.

The Bibby Stockholm barge in Falmouth docks earlier this month.
The Bibby Stockholm barge in Falmouth docks earlier this month. Photograph: Matt Keeble/PA

Grant Shapps to meet supermarket bosses over ‘sky high’ petrol prices

Supermarket bosses will meet Grant Shapps, the energy secretary, today after he pledged to hold “rip-off retailers” to account for charging motorists “sky high” prices for fuel. Kalyeena Makortoff has the story here.

In his Inside Politics briefing for the Financial Times, Stephen Bush says that, regardless of what Keir Starmer told Laura Kuenssberg yesterday, a Labour government would end up getting rid of the two-child benefits cap. Bush argues:

The Conservatives’ policy — which caps the amount a household can receive in benefits if they have no, or low, earnings — upsets the party’s social liberals, its Christian socialists, its feminists and its pro-welfare tendency  …  Essentially every part of the Labour party hates this policy, which is one reason why almost every major figure in the party is on the record calling the policy “immoral”, “heinous” or “social engineering” or some variation thereof.

The only question will be whether a change to the current cap is enforced on the leadership — perhaps by some equivalent of the bill currently working its way through parliament — or if the policy never gets that far.

You can see at the moment that Keir Starmer is trying to win, essentially, a doctor’s mandate: that was the subtext of his piece for the Observer this weekend. The short version is “the UK is sick, the disease is low growth, give me a mandate to cure the illness”. And you can see, too, how Labour might find its way around this commitment, whether through spinning its changes to universal credit or pointing out the problems that UK benefits create for growth.

Case for abolishing two-child benefit cap ‘overwhelming’, says report, as Labour defends saying it will keep it

Good morning. MPs have got four more days sitting in the Commons before the summer recess starts, but it is not really the moment for Rishi Sunak to start winding down. There are byelections in three Conservative-held seats on Thursday – Boris Johnson’s Uxbridge and South Ruislip, Nigel Adams’ Selby and Ainsty, and David Warburton’s Somerton and Frome – and Tories fear they will lose them all, even though in the latter two the majorities in 2019 were around 20,000. If this does happen, Sunak will be the first PM to lose three byelections in one day since Harold Wilson in 1968 (12 years before Sunak was even born).

We got a preview of one possible Tory line to take in the event of a triple drubbing from the Conservative MP Steve Brine on the Westminster Hour last night. Asked about the possibility of defeat in Uxbridge, he said: “It’s another bit of what I call ‘long Boris’, isn’t it?” Long Boris might also part-explain a defeat in Selby, where the byelection is only happening because Adams, a Johnson loyalist, resigned in a huff when his nomination for a peerage was blocked. But if Sunak does lose in all three seats, most commentators, and Tories, will conclude that this is symptomatic of a wider malaise, and not purely the fault of Johnson.

With the recess looming, Keir Starmer has his own problems. As Pippa Crerar and Patrick Butler report, the Labour leader is facing criticism because yesterday he said he would keep the two-child benefit cap in place.

A new report out today by academics, who have studied the impact of the policy in detail, says the case for scrapping the two-child cap, and the overall benefit cap, is “overwhelming”. It says both policies are causing “extreme hardship” and failing to incentivise claimant families to find more work or limit the number of children they have – supposedly the whole point in the first place.

On the two-child cap in particular, the report, which is funded by the Nuffield Foundation and produced by researchers from the Larger Families project, says:

Many of the families we interviewed did not know that the two-child limit existed until after their child was born and, in some cases, conception was not a choice, but was the result of failed contraception or an abusive relationship. In other cases, the family was not receiving benefits when the affected child was born, and parents only found out about the restriction when their circumstances later changed as a result of relationship breakdown or job loss. Additionally, while there is an exemption in place for children born as a result of non-consensual conception or within the context of domestic abuse, the majority of the participants eligible for this were not receiving it.

As this analysis by Matthew Weaver explains, getting rid of the two-child benefit cap would cost about £1.3bn. This morning Yvette Cooper, the shadow home secretary, defended Starmer’s decision to say Labour would keep it in place, saying the party could only promise things it could afford. She told Sky News:

We’ve got to be clear about what we can fund and that’s why Keir Starmer’s set out the position. Because we’ve got to make sure that any policy that we propose, anything that we might want to change, anything we might not like that the Tories have done, we’ve still got to say how we’d fund it.

Here is the agenda for the day.

Morning: Rishi Sunak is on a visit to a school.

10am: Yvette Cooper, the shadow home secretary, gives a speech on national security.

11.30am: Downing Street holds a lobby briefing.

2.30pm: Gillian Keegan, the education secretary, takes questions in the Commons.

After 3.30pm: An education minister is expected to make a statement to MPs on the plans to cap the number of students who can enrol for “low value” courses in England.

After 4.30pm: MPs will debate and vote on the latest Lords amendments to the illegal migration bill.

If you want to contact me, do try the “send us a message” feature. You’ll see it just below the byline – on the left of the screen, if you are reading on a PC or a laptop. This is for people who want to message me directly. I find it very useful when people message to point out errors (even typos – no mistake is too small to correct). Often I find your questions very interesting too. I can’t promise to reply to them all, but I will try to reply to as many as I can, either in the comments below the line, privately (if you leave an email address and that seems more appropriate), or in the main blog, if I think it is a topic of wide interest.


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