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.
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.