In the Covid-19 era, with focus increasingly on the safety of university students and how their behaviour may impact others, the issue of who should actually go on to higher education had, temporarily at least, been sidelined.
But this summer, the A-level shambles and the ire it provoked reminded the government of the importance of higher education to middle-class parents and students. Shortly before the August debacle, however, the government announced its intention to make a marked shift in policy, breaking with a commitment that 50 percent of young people should experience higher education. The policy had been in place since 2001.
Both Education Secretary Gavin Williamson and the higher education minister Michelle Donelan sent out clear messages that the economy and society did not need more students. The latter stated in July that “the 2004 access regime has let down too many young people” who “have been taken advantage of – particularly those without a family history of going to university.” However, dialling down on the nurturing of knowledge is the wrong way to go. A quite different approach is needed and not just from the Conservatives, but from Labour as the party seeks a coherent higher education policy in the post-Corbyn era.
The scepticism around the value of higher education has been growing on the right for some time. The removal of the student numbers cap by George Osborne in 2015 masked the views held by backbench MPs and think tanks that too many students were taking low-quality courses in even lower-quality universities. Evidence pointing to the increasing numbers of apprentices who earned more than graduates and early career graduates in non-graduate jobs added fuel to this fire. The result was last year’s review of tertiary education headed by the banker Phillip Augar, which recommended a shift away from higher education to technical learning.
The government is still to respond to this review but its success in securing so many ex-Labour seats in lower income areas may only reinforce the view that, for too long, the focus has been on higher education at the expense of other educational routes. It is precisely these areas where higher education participation is the lowest. Many lack the kind of university presence that bigger cities enjoy.
The combination of a government who are lukewarm – and more recently icy cold – on the merits of higher education has put too many universities and those who support them on the defensive. Rather than arguing that increasing higher education participation is essential to addressing the economic and social challenges we face, the emphasis has been on preserving the status quo.
It has become too readily accepted that at least half the population are just not suited to “going to uni” and that they need (and would prefer) a much stronger vocational route separate from higher education. But the evidence would suggest otherwise. The majority of young people still want to go on to higher education – over 75 percent according to research by IPSOS Mori in 2018.
No one really know exactly what skills the future labour market will need, especially in the wake of Covid-19. Research by Nesta and Pearson shows that 70 per cent of people are currently in jobs where it is not possible to predict future demand. What evidence does exist suggests that demand for occupations in what they describe as the “top quintile”, will increase by 19 percent from 2017 to 2030. Graduates are far less likely to be unemployed than non-graduates, even though higher education participation has increased significantly over the last two decades. On average they still earn more – £10,000 more than non-graduates. They also benefit from better health and are nearly twice as likely to feel they have a say in what government does compare to those who left school at 16.
These non-economic benefits of higher education should not be seen as an added bonus to the labour market benefits of a degree. In the face of the endemic uncertainty, overload of information and susceptibility to authoritarianism that are coming to define the early 21st century, a population with the maximum possible level of education is not just desirable, it is essential.
Those arguing for higher education need to be more vocal and more comprehensive. Rather than trying to defend a target of 50 percent, the merits of 70 to 80 percent levels of participation of young people now need to be seriously discussed alongside an entitlement to life-long learning and access to different forms of higher education.
Such participation does not mean three years of full-time study for all, nor necessarily obtaining qualifications at the full degree level. Higher education should, as it expands, become characterised by a greater role for Further Education, more blended offers and new forms of provider that are more bespoke to specific towns presently underserved.
For Labour, this vision offers an alternative starting point to higher education, as opposed to a narrow focus on tuition fee levels. If presented the right way, and supported by the necessary groundwork in policy formation and public engagement, there is no reason it will not appeal to the “red wall” seats Labour lost in 2019.
This has already begun via Labour’s Lifelong Learning Commission whose report The Future is ours to Learn was launched in the run-up to last year’s election. The report’s proposals included a universal right to learn, a personalised learning platform for all in society, and a new approach to providing information, advice and guidance that now need to be built upon.
There were good reasons for the anger when the government’s incompetence this summer nearly ruined thousands of young people’s journey to higher education. They know that it offers then the best chance of a prosperous, safe future. It is time for the rest of us to realise this, too.
Dr. Graeme Atherton is the director of the National Education Opportunities Network (NEON)