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.

Getty.
Show Hide image

Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.