Degrees, the Beeb and Blair

University at 18 is overrated; make Salford the capital of England, and then the BBC might go north

Maybe it's the fascist beast in me rising again, but I wonder whether it's really such a disaster if, as a result of spending cuts, fewer 18-year-olds go to university. Thanks to expansion of higher education over the past 30 years, all sorts of jobs that used to be open to school leavers - journalism among them - are now, formally or informally, open only to graduates. Even estate agents want to recruit people with degrees. I'm not sure we have better journalists or that we shall get better estate agents.

Since the children of affluent parents are overwhelmingly more successful at education than the children of the poor, the demand from employers and professions for ever-higher qualifications has returned social mobility to 19th-century levels. Just as wealthy parents once bought army commissions or civil service positions for their children, so they now purchase professional jobs by paying for private schooling or private tuition, subsidising postgraduate courses, and helping out during work experience. When the majority left school with few certificates or none, they started on what is now called a level playing field. Outstanding ability allowed tea boys to rise to the board of directors, sometimes through on-the-job training or evening classes. They were not barred from attempting professional exams for lack of three A-levels.

University at 18 has its uses: some people, such as aspirant doctors, need to study full-time at that age, and there are cultural and social benefits to going, of course. But perhaps we should think of doing two things. First, we could ban professions and employers from setting general education qualifications - upper Seconds or five GCSEs at higher grades, for example - as entry bars, and demand that requirements be directly relevant to the job involved. Discriminating against the uncertificated should be as unacceptable as discriminating against ethnic minorities, women and the disabled.

Second, those who don't go to university at 18 could be entitled to mid-career breaks - of anything from three months to four years - during which they could boost their qualifications or simply study for personal development.

Such ideas were widely discussed in the 1970s, before we opted for huge growth in conventional higher education. Perhaps one of Labour's leadership candidates could revive them.

Suits me

Though I continue to support his brother, the sainted Ed, for the Labour leadership, I wish to offer a defence of David Miliband. He is criticised for being photographed in a suit and tie on the beach in South Shields. Leave aside the possibility he was taking a stroll before addressing his constituency AGM; Miliband Major and other politicians have good reasons for dressing formally even when they are supposed to be relaxing. First, when you wear a suit and tie most of your waking hours, you start to feel uncomfortable in anything else and can't be bothered to buy or match up more informal clothes. Second, whatever you choose as leisure wear, the press will say you've got it wrong and look an ass. Third, in working-class constituencies such as South Shields, you wore a suit and tie when you weren't at work, not when you were.

Capital gains

To make itself less "Londoncentric", the BBC wants to move 1,500 staff to Salford. Nobody wants to go, not even senior executives: the human resources director has left his job after just two months. Since property prices are lower in the north, and people are always grumbling about the noise, congestion and general crappiness of London, it all seems a bit odd.

But attempts to decentralise from London will always fail. London is not just easily the largest city, but also England's political, business, financial, transport, professional, media and cultural capital. Millions can live prosperous and fulfilling lives in Manchester, but BBC executives, producers, presenters, and so on will feel cut off from the mainstream, as would ambitious folk in many other walks of life.

After all, even the Guardian has given up on Manchester. When quangos and civil service departments are sent to the regions, their senior people complain they still have to spend half the week in the capital talking to ministers.

If we are worried about overcentralisation, we should follow countries such as the Netherlands, New Zealand, the US and Switzerland, and designate another city as the seat of government. But it is impossible to imagine ministers or top civil servants being any more willing to move north than BBC staff.

In association with . . .

Is Tony Blair's donation of his book earnings to the Royal British Legion an act of pure charity or is it "blood money"? Neither. It is what businesses call a loss leader, or canny marketing. Blair is an international brand with fingers in numerous lucrative pies and, according to the latest reports, one of his companies even offers financial services. Some companies sponsor schools, others cricket matches. Blair favours wounded soldiers.

Catch-all cricketers

Pakistan's cricketers lose two Test matches by big margins, having dropped a dozen or more catches. In the next match, they hold all but one catch and win deservedly, with the aid of a former captain, recalled after being banned for life five months earlier. Typically unpredictable, disorganised Pakistanis, say sports pundits, with a distinctly racist subtext.

But remind me: which country, in 2009, lost one match against Australia by an innings and won the next by 197 runs; in the same year, when the captain criticised the coach, sacked both captain and coach; and, in 2006, dropped nine catches in one match against Sri Lanka? Those undisciplined, overexcitable white Englishmen, perhaps?

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 30 August 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Face off