19 April 2022

Do we really want 70% of school leavers going to university?

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Not content with New Labour’s target of 50% of school leavers going into higher education, Tony Blair has now declared that we should be boosting that figure to 70%.

A report out this week from the Tony Blair Institute says doing so would ‘significantly’ boost productivity and economic growth by increasing the number of skilled graduates.

In the foreword, former Universities Minister Jo Johnson argues that this would put us on a par with high-innovation economies like South Korea and Japan, where HE participation rates are already well above the 53% in the UK.

The intentions behind these proposals are clearly noble: who would not want an economy full to the brim with highly skilled workers competing for well paid, fulfilling work? It’s also worth noting that this is very much a long-term plan, with the aim of 60% of young people in HE by 2030, and 70% by 2040.

The big question is how we define ‘higher education’ and what kind of courses people are going to end up doing. 

If boosting HE numbers just means funneling ever more young people into traditional three or four-year degree courses, there’s little evidence that would be a boon for the British economy. If anything, quite the opposite.

That was certainly the rationale behind Blair’s original target, announced in 1999, of getting half of school leavers into HE by 2010. Indeed, the then PM said explicitly: ‘There is no greater ambition for Britain than to see a steadily rising proportion gain the huge benefits of a university education as school standards rise.’

But you only need to look at the current HE landscape to see that not everyone has seen the ‘huge benefits’ Blair described. Although we boast world-class universities and there is a clear ‘graduate premium’, far too many young people are doing courses that won’t add much to their employability. Worse still, the Institute for Fiscal Studies estimates that one in five undergrads end up worse off for going to university. 

The public finances also suffer when too many grads are not earning enough to repay their loans. As this Centre for Policy Studies report points out, the Government is paying out around £8bn a year writing off loan repayments. Simply adding ever more numbers to a system that is producing a lot of bad outcomes would be both perverse and wasteful.

It’s little surprise that some graduates struggle to get well paid work, given that many lack basic literacy and numeracy skills. As the OECD’s head of education, Andreas Schleicher, noted back in 2018, British graduates are ‘labelled overqualified, but they are not overskilled’. In 2018 the then head of the charity National Numeracy, Mike Ellicock, was similarly blunt when he said there was ‘no guarantee that graduates in the UK are functionally numerate’.

That question of basic skills comes back to the final part of Blair’s quotation, the bit about school standards rising. As Fraser Nelson notes, only three fifths of school leavers get a qualification beyond GCSE. 

The high-skill, high-graduate economies of Japan and Korea that Jo Johnson cites rely on a cohort of high school leavers whose literacy and numeracy scores are much better than those of British students (indeed, the UK comes fifth bottom out of all OECD countries on both literacy and numeracy).

It follows that if we do want to boost the number in higher education, that has to start with a concerted effort to raise the attainment of those in secondary education – doing one without the other is a recipe for more disgruntled, indebted graduates working in jobs for which a degree isn’t necessary. 

Rather than an arbitrary enrollment target, there should be two broad policy aims, neither of which involves aiming for a particular percentage of school leavers reaching HE. 

First, to increase the utility and value of degrees by weeding out courses that offer poor value for money and little in the way of employer-friendly skills. This Centre for Policy Studies report offers a number of recommendations for how to do that, including making the economic returns of courses clearer and reforming student finance so that universities have a much clearer stake in their graduates’ career prospects. That wouldn’t mean the end of humanities or creative subjects, but it would put the whole system on a much firmer financial footing.

The other prong is about enhancing the non-academic path for school leavers. The chair of the Education Select Committee, Robert Halfon, has his own Blair-esque vocational target of getting 50% of school leavers into degree apprenticeships – a laudable sentiment, but one that risks replacing one arbitrary target with another. 

The Government has already made some important steps here, with the introduction of T Levels and Higher Technical Qualifications, which begin later this year. A big part of that has been streamlining a system that at one point had 4,000 different qualifications, making it baffling for would-be learners to tell which courses were actually worth their while.

Above all, there has been a conscious and overdue effort to give technical qualifications the prestige they deserve – something that has long been the case in highly productive Germany, with its dual route academic/vocational education system. 

Taken together, the combination of a more employment-focused university system and a more prestigious vocational route can help bridge the gap between the British economy and our most innovative competitors. Or, to paraphrase one of Mr Blair’s favourite nostrums, the mantra from now on should not just be ‘education, education, education, but ‘skills, skills, skills’.

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John Ashmore is Editor of CapX.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.