Cutting back on university places will create a lost generation

150,000 students have made the grade but will be denied a place. What does the government expect the

The regular New Statesman columnist Professor David Blanchflower warned last week that youth unemployment was on the increase and would soon pass the one million mark. Things look bleak indeed for a young generation at real risk of being lost.

In the light of this, this year's A-level results day takes on a particularly gloomy significance. It is already clear that at least 150,000 students with both the grades and the desire to begin studying at university in the coming year will be left without a place.

There were approximately 600,000 university applicants in total this year; this means that at least a quarter of all applicants will be shut out.

Thus far, the government's response to the crisis has been fit only for the birds: frustrated applicants have been left to peck at crumbs.

Of course, applying to university is a competitive process. But these are applicants who have worked hard to achieve grades that would, in any other circumstances, get them a university place. Now they find that the goalposts have been moved to somewhere else altogether, and it's out of their control.

Crucially, this limit on places is not out of necessity; the restrictions on university places are being achieved through an entirely arbitrary cap on student numbers, which is itself being enforced through a government threat to fine any university that ends up oversubscribed.

Many universities have complained that they may even be left with spare capacity once term starts, and that the threat of government fines prevents them from over-recruiting slightly at this stage in order to compensate for the inevitable quotient of students who drop out between now and the start of term.

This is both morally unacceptable and economically short-sighted. These young people are being denied an opportunity to study at university, with all the value that that holds, including the increased work and career opportunities that a university education affords.

Hatchet job

Sadly, given the state of the economy, compounded by the government's actions -- in cutting the Future Jobs Fund, breaking up the Connexions service, and savagely cutting further education, for example -- many of these young people will start their working lives by signing on.

This can be devastating -- as Blanchflower noted in a piece for the Guardian back in March, "Unemployment while young creates permanent scars rather than temporary blemishes." All the evidence suggests that a spell of unemployment for a young person does not end with that spell, but raises the probability of that person being unemployed in later years, aty the same time as introducing a permanent "wage penalty".

Nor does this seem to make economic sense. Why prevent someone from going to university, when he or she is qualified, willing and able, citing the cost of supporting that person's education, but then spend government money a couple of months later to pay them a jobseeker's allowance? As we look towards the medium and longer term, would we rather have extra graduates -- components parts in the engine of our economic recovery -- or young people who have suffered "permanent scars"?

More widely, there are clearly grave problems with a system that is unable to support the hundreds of thousands of applicants who have "made the grade", and one that leaves a quarter of applicants without a place. Ministers must think seriously about how we can fund our higher education system in a way that is fair, progressive and sustainable (as with, for example, our progressive graduate contribution). The top-up fees model is clearly not working.

In the meantime, ministers must make clear what they expect these young people who have been denied the chance to study at university to do instead, and explain what they are going to do to help them. If not, they risk creating a lost generation whose life chances have been ruined, and whose legacy will leave permanent scars on our economy and our society. They would not be forgiven for doing so.

Aaron Porter is the president of the National Union of Students. He studied English literature at the University of Leicester and served as a sabbatical officer at the students' union.

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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.