The Tony Blair Institute released a report this week arguing that 70 per cent of young people should be going into higher education by 2040. The man himself turned up in The Times to make the case. This has led to inevitable howls of outrage from those who think too many people are doing degrees already.
Both sides of this argument tend to overestimate politicians’ ability to determine educational demand. As Peter Mandler shows in his superb study of post-war education, The Crisis of the Meritocracy, the growth in post-16 and then tertiary education was driven by students and parents, rather than ministers, often in the face of governments trying to save money or preserve class privileges.
While Blair spoke of an aspiration for 50 per cent participation in higher education when Prime Minister, his government never needed to set an actual target because the demand was there anyway. Since 2010 we have seen rapid rises in tuition fees and associated interest rates, but student numbers have continued to rise to 53.5 per cent. This is not a UK-only phenomenon – it is true across all wealthy nations, and many, like Canada and Japan, have significantly higher rates of participation than we do.
This student demand is generated, in part, by the graduate premium that still exists, despite tuition fees, but there is another factor that is largely ignored in the debate: status. Graduate jobs that are relatively poorly-paid are still higher status than better-paid manual or technical work. Teachers, for instance, earn less than tube drivers, on average, but are much more likely to be friends with other graduate professionals like doctors and lawyers.
Those who rail against the expansion of higher education are often reflecting their frustration with the sharpening of this status divide. As more and more jobs have gone graduate only, society is increasingly polarised around educational qualifications and professional status. But it is, realistically, impossible to reverse this. Employers will continue to use degrees as an employment filter regardless of government rhetoric, and higher education will continue to be desirable. Given we can’t go backwards, the best bet is to keep going forwards and to ensure as many young people as possible have access to a wide range of professional choices.
Another concern of the anti-HE commentators is that students are increasingly doing low-value qualifications rather than useful vocational ones. There is much chuntering about “David Beckham Studies” and the like. But this doesn’t reflect reality. By far the most popular degree subject area is business and management, with close to half a million students last year. There are 1.2 million studying some kind of science qualification, with over 400,000 doing a medicine-related subject. There are almost 200,000 engineers and over 150,000 doing computing. The majority of students are doing courses related to a vocation. And most Further Education Colleges now offer degree-level qualifications too. Most of the “lowest value” courses in terms of economic premium are in things like social care and nursing. These professions do indeed pay poorly, but they have an enormous value to society.
Where the critics have more of a point is around the student experience. If we are to see an ever-rising proportion of the population doing degrees, then universities and other HE institutions will need to take this more seriously. It is ridiculous, given how much we fuss about school assessment, that HE can get away with giving 70 per cent of students one of two grades, with no meaningful comparability at all across institutions. This forces employers to use the reputation of the college as a proxy during recruitment, which is very unfair for students who attend less well-known ones.
And then there’s something that is within the government’s power: student finance. I have always supported tuition fees; given there is a personal economic premium it made sense for some of the cost to fall on the individual. But it is increasingly less defensible in the context of a broader economic landscape that is so harsh for young people, with a growing tax burden on workers and ludicrously high housing costs. Recent changes have made the system less progressive, doubling lifetime costs for someone on an average graduate salary to over £100,000. The increase in interest rates to 12 per cent next year feels like state-sanctioned extortion. If we are to move to a world in which the substantial majority of people study at degree level, then the case for reforming the system grows stronger still.
Tony Blair is likely to get his way; higher education participation will almost certainly continue to rise in the coming decades. It makes sense for the government to accept this, rather than try to hold back the tide using Telegraph editorials. Once they do, we can then have a serious discussion about how to make this work most effectively for the country and for students, both financially and in terms of their wider experience.