I sat my A-levels 15 years ago. Following a satisfactory set of results, I went off to university during the great expansion of higher education in the mid-2000s. Until then going to university was not something that people like me – lower middle class and living in a down-at-heel provincial town – usually did, at least not in significant numbers.
That changed during the New Labour years when Tony Blair set a target for 50 per cent of young people to go to university. Soon enough I was infected by a wave of possibility that came with expanded horizons. The mood music in my head changed: maybe, just maybe, there was “room at the top” after all.
Philosophically, Blair’s drive to expand higher education flowed from a belief that New Labour had found answers to the conundrum the left found itself in following the Thatcherite revolution. Gone were the schema of socialist assumptions and working-class voters that had previously been associated with the left. Instead, in Blair’s meritocratic utopia, an educated elite would rise to the top and form the basis of a dynamic and progressive “knowledge economy”.
The opening up of university education to people such as myself has produced audible grumbling from conservatives ever since. Much of this hostility has derived from a barely concealed snobbery which seems to view university as little more than a finishing school for the children of the middle classes. Widening access, therefore, was seen to devalue the entire concept.
Yet these rumblings of discontent have grown more audible – and more persuasive – as economic reality has diverged from the optimistic forecasts of the Blair years. As millennials like myself joined the workforce in the 2010s (I graduated in 2011) we entered an economic landscape radically different from the era that preceded it. The sunny optimism of “no more boom and bust” was replaced by austerity and the proliferation of insecure and poorly paid gig work. While employment rose between 2011 and 2014, “good jobs” proportionally decreased. The knowledge economy alluded to by Blair in one of his many triumphalist speeches turned out to be an hourglass economy where a shrinking middle class was no longer shielded from capitalism’s vicissitudes.
The government’s education policy is starting to reflect the passing of this optimistic era. The education secretary Gavin Williamson has urged parents to be open-minded about apprenticeships when their children receive their A-level results today (10 August). Furthermore, in 2020 Williamson pledged to scrap the 50 per cent target – less than one year after it was finally achieved.
It is true that a person’s earning potential is loosely correlated with possession of a degree. On average a university graduate can expect to earn around £70,000 more over a lifetime than a non-graduate.
However, I am not convinced it is necessarily elitist to answer Tony Blair’s famous rallying cry – “Education, education, education” – with a question: education for what, and by whom?
For one thing, the statistics around one’s earning potential with a degree are quite complex. Contrary to optimistic narratives linking education with economic progress, around one in five students will actually earn less over a lifetime as a result of going to university. Students studying subjects such as medicine and engineering do well on average, whereas those studying graphic design and drama often end up making losses relative to what they might have earned if they hadn’t attended university. Yet there are twice as many creative arts students at English universities than there are engineering students.
Perhaps this is so because students entering the creative professions have been sold a vision of meritocratic utopia in which, as the novelist John Steinbeck once remarked of the American dream, everyone is a “temporarily embarrassed millionaire”. Thanks to social media, the one per cent are highly visible in careers such as journalism, the arts and the music industry. Indeed, the current crop of media studies graduates will have been marinated in a culture that suggests they are one viral article or podcast away from a big break. In reality, stable and well-paying jobs in areas such as journalism and film are in precipitous decline.
But perhaps status is simply more important than earning potential for today’s graduates. We increasingly live in a world where, thanks to the proliferation of screens, presentation is often valued more than actual achievements. A recent survey of American millennials and Gen-Z found that more than half (54 per cent) would become social media “influencers” given the opportunity.
Status and its relation to employment was the topic of a recent book by the journalist and commentator David Goodhart. In the book, the author tells the story of a handsome car mechanic who hides his job on dating apps even though he earns good money; women seemed to lose interest when they discovered what he did for a living.
Thus it will probably take more than a few new apprenticeship schemes and an expansion of technical education to reverse the trend among school leavers of enrolling in higher education courses that “leave them disappointed, the economy poorer and the taxpayer out of pocket”, as Paul Johnson of the Institute for Fiscal Studies has phrased it.
Perhaps what we really need is a recalibration (easier said than done) of what we define as “high status” in our society. And maybe the pandemic offers an opportunity to do just that, to revivify the dignity of labour as it were. While we stood on our doorsteps last year and clapped for carers, the working class did seem to regain some of its old esteem.
For personal reasons already alluded to, I balk at the idea of placing an arbitrary limit on the number of people who can go to university. I am very much one of those oiks who, once upon a time, would have been quietly siphoned off into a second-rate technical college by the TS Eliot-quoting classes.
But I still think it worth asking whether it is in everyone’s best interests to study for a degree – while simultaneously keeping open their option of doing so. This year’s A-level students, who have had to sit exams around Covid restrictions, have already been given a raw deal by the education system. Pretending that a degree is an automatic ticket to the sunlit uplands of individual prosperity will simply compound the injustice.