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University Technical College, Wigan: A school which allows student to earn while they learn (photo: Dave Green)

Ed Miliband says a future Labour government would cap tuition fees at £6,000 a year — £3,000 less than the present cap. On the face of it the policy ought to be a vote winner. In practice it’s not as simple as that.

Economists have pointed out that most students would continue to make tuition loan repayments for most of their working lives: any debt still outstanding after 30 years would be written off by the government. The main beneficiaries of Labour’s plan are people who can pay off their loans in less than 30 years — and that will only be possible if they earn large salaries or inherit wealth.

It is very odd for Miliband, of all people, to propose a policy which chiefly benefits the wealthy. If the Labour party believes money can be raised by cutting tax breaks on pensions, it would be better spent on what Labour insists on calling “the forgotten 50 per cent”.

Expanding technical education would benefit many young people, including some who currently go to university in the false belief that it is the only path to success. Indeed, today there is a growing amount of graduate unemployment.

In reality employers are crying out for people with technical skills, qualifications and real-world experience, a blend best achieved by combining work and study — learning and earning. Young people deserve clear, well-supported paths that will take them all the way from school to highly-skilled, highly-technical careers.

That’s what we set out to deliver in University Technical Colleges. From ages 14 to 18, students combine core subjects such as English, maths and science with demanding technical subjects such as engineering. We’re doing the same in Career Colleges, where the specialisms include hospitality, catering and digital technology.

At 18 most UTC students already have Level 3 qualifications, meaning they are ready and able to go straight on to Higher Apprenticeships with companies like Rolls-Royce, Network Rail, JCB and the National Grid, where they will have a salary of £15,000 and study for a foundation degree at the company’s cost. The students could go on to a full honours degree, but not for a full three-year term as they will want a course of two years, studying one or two days a week. Very few universities offer that sort of course. These students would get a full degree and have no debt.

I am convinced many more young people would take this path if they could. However, figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency reveal an alarming fall in part-time higher education in the last four years. Looking purely at UK residents attending English higher education institutions (HEIs), part-time enrolments fell from 667,000 in 2009/10 to 490,000 in 2013/14.

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