Why universities had to be challenged

July 14, 2020

Getting 50% of 18-year-olds into FE led to low productivity, poor social mobility and cultural division


It is now official. The helter skelter expansion of UK higher education ushered in 21 years ago by Tony Blair’s pledge to send half of school leavers to university is now at an end.

And the announcement by the education secretary, Gavin Williamson, came not a moment too soon. The headlong rush into mass academic higher education, leapfrogging even the US, happened faster in the UK than in most other comparable countries and it seemed to happen on automatic pilot, with remarkably little thought given to the economic or social consequences. The only serious debate we ever had was on tuition fees.

Already about 30% of school leavers were heading to university when Blair made his pledge in 1999, but the accelerated push for 50% (which on some measures was reached last year) has turned out to have very significant unintended consequences, many of them negative.

Consider the following: more than a third of UK graduates are in non-graduate employment more than five years after graduating and the graduate pay premium is shrinking to below 10% for nearly half of male graduates; meanwhile employers are desperately short of people with higher manual and technical skills and there are big shortages in both the skilled trades and the care economy. At the same time, more than a third of all jobs, and most of the good ones, are graduate only, shutting out people without degrees. And in the period when the proportion of graduates in the adult population has risen to 35% (and around 45% among the under-30s) productivity has declined, social mobility has at best flat-lined and cultural divides have grown starker.

Yet we are so used to thinking of a university education as an automatic good and a passport to a successful life for pretty well anyone that the powerful university lobby still has a powerful grip on the country’s imagination. It is sure to hit back at the new course that the Government is setting as it attempts to re-set the economic and cultural signals away from the classical university to a much wider variety of post-school options.

Jo Johnson the former Tory universities minister complained last week that there was no evidence that sending fewer young people to university “is the route to a more productive economy”. That may be so, but there is no evidence on the other side either (causality in such matters is notoriously difficult to establish) and it is a simple historical fact that the most rapid post-war economic and productivity growth happened when barely 10% of school leavers went to university in the 1960s.

There is an extraordinary amount of magical thinking about the beneficial impact of higher education on productivity, economic growth and social mobility, (the education writer Alison Wolf compares it to the Soviet Union ’s irrational belief in capital goods). In fact, to repeat, all of these things have been stagnating in the years that university enrolments have been roaring ahead and rich countries with very different numbers of graduates can produce very similar growth and productivity numbers.

More graduate teachers and doctors, and other public service professionals, were required with the big expansion of the welfare state in the 1960s and 1970s. And there was strong demand for graduates when the knowledge economy took off in the 1980s. All of this helped to create today’s more open and democratic mass professional elite. It is also true that the UK saw a productivity surge in the 1980s and 1990s, as graduate numbers were rising, (though that was largely thanks to the Thatcherite elimination of the least productive companies and even sectors).

In more recent decades it has been a very different story. The American economist Robert Gordon, in his book The Rise and Fall of American Growth, says that innovation has been nose-diving in the era when there has never been more investment in research universities. Productivity has been in particularly sharp decline in those parts of the economy that are graduate-dominated. And some analysis even sees professional bureaucratization stemming from mass higher education as an active drag on productivity.

Moreover, higher education has done nothing to reduce inequality and its expansion in recent decades has clearly widened the value and cultural divides that have contributed to the votes for Brexit and Trump. This is particularly true in the UK which is an international outlier both in the high number that go to residential universities and the lack of a prestigious technical college alternative to university (after the polytechnics were abolished in 1992).

One reason that the rapid expansion of higher education, to half of school leavers, seemed self-evidently desirable to those in the room when the decision was made is that all of them were graduates — a classic case of groupthink.

One man in that room and closely involved in discussions over Labour’s 50% target was David Soskice, the LSE political economist and son of former Labour Home Secretary Frank Soskice. When I spoke to him about the target he can remember nobody in government involved in the decision raising any objections. The economy seemed to want more graduates, judging by the (then) graduate income premium, and university was regarded as a ladder of social mobility for those from middle- and lower-income groups.

What I call the 15/50 problem does not seem to have been considered: the idea that when 15% of people in your class or school or town go to university and you don’t, it does not create a ‘left behind’ problem, but when 50% go to university and you don’t it does create such a psychological problem.

And it is absurd that so much higher education spending is focused on those aged 18 to 22. Many of them have acquired useful life experience and grown into young adults away from home for an extended period for the first time. Many have also acquired useful professional skills or pursued intellectual interests for the sheer joy of it. But far too many have learned little of value, and what they have learned they have quickly forgotten, their degree acting primarily as a signal to a future employer that they have the right personal characteristics to enter the bloated cognitive class. It is a ranking system and, in the UK, it is reinforced by the physical and social separation of the residential universities. And the sorting hat of higher education creates a qualification treadmill requiring ever more differentiation, with post-graduate degrees now booming.

Some people argue that more or less everyone should go to something called a university and the colleges should then specialise in different kinds of education and vocational training. Such people point to the fact that around 40% of university courses, and even more in the post-1992 universities, are essentially vocational — whether traditional, high-prestige, vocational courses such as medicine, law and engineering, or newer university degrees such as nursing, quantity surveying or marketing.

Yet the relevant question for the UK is this: is a classical university — with its bias towards academic essay-writing skills, and lecturers who are often researchers first and teachers second — the best place to deliver the kind of higher vocational skills that many individuals want to acquire and that the economy, especially in the UK, so badly needs? Public opinion in the UK clearly does not think so. A survey by the think tank Onward found that 66% of respondents agreed that more people going to university and fewer gaining technical qualifications had been bad for the country overall; 34% said it was beneficial.

Yet the current incentives in the UK, from very tangible financial ones to less tangible cultural ones, focus on three- or four-year fulltime courses for 18–19-year-olds, usually at residential universities which is very expensive both for the country and the individuals concerned and not always an effective use of someone ’s time. And those incentives tend to discourage part-time study, mature students, shorter diploma-type higher vocational courses. Moreover, thanks to the student-demand-led higher education funding system the UK was in the bizarre position, in the 2011–17 period, of increasing university teaching funding in physics by just 6% per student, compared with 27% for business degrees and 34% for sports sciences.

It is not that we are investing too much in education in general, but too much is going on signalling efforts for the higher-level exam-passers and not enough on the vocational, professional and technical skills, and indeed the lifelong learning, that most of the population, and the economy, need to flourish. It is a bit like acquiring a state-of-the-art nuclear weapon while your tanks and artillery decay.

If, thanks to an oversupply of graduates, advertisements for teaching assistants or accounting technicians begin to routinely require a degree, it is common sense for individuals who wish to work in these fields to obtain one. But it would be better for both individuals and society if the arms race could be called off and access to such jobs restored to conscientious school leavers and apprentices, as used to be the case.

Moreover, today’s graduates, as Paul Lewis of King’s College, London, argues, tend to have unrealistic expectations of high-status, well-paid jobs and when they are actually employed in the middling technical or junior manager jobs that their non-graduate parents might have done they quickly become dissatisfied. The system is producing the wrong mix of skills, with too many graduates and too few actual technicians and skilled trades jobs especially in construction, health and information technology from coders to web designers. UK employers in 2017 complained that they had trouble filling more than 40% of skilled trades vacancies.

We are suffering an epidemic of square pegs in round holes. And these disappointed graduate expectations may lie behind some of the more extreme campus identity politics and eruptions of political emotion from the Corbyn movement to Black Lives Matter.

It is true that longer, residential courses are popular with students — many are naturally attracted to three years fun and freedom away from parents at age 18/19 — but the high cost (both for the individual and the taxpayer) and disappointing returns is starting to shift attitudes. And if Covid-19 is going to mean a permanent reduction in the flow of international students, whose high fees have helped to subsidise the system in the UK, this middle-class rite of passage may be a luxury the UK can no longer afford. The residential experience can be a useful one in learning how to cooperate and rub along with people from different backgrounds but there must be other ways of providing that experience through residential apprenticeships or civic volunteering schemes.

The obvious point is that university does not produce the best outcomes for everyone. It makes no sense for many young people, from all social classes, who do not flourish in the rigorous academic environment that a university should be (but increasingly is not). And it makes even less sense for an economy that requires a range of skills and aptitudes many of which are better acquired in workplaces or other kinds of post-school educational institution.

And it is surely just self-defeating to assume that the answer to our growing education-based status (and income) divides is to send even more people to university. People from all backgrounds, especially less privileged ones, should be encouraged to go to elite universities if they have the aptitude for it. But in Germany it is perfectly normal for middle class children to do an apprenticeship or go to a technical college. And congratulations to Gavin Williamson for declaring he would be very happy if one of his children were to take a non-university path after school.

In my observation too much of the case for mass higher education is based on an indiscriminate spirit of not wanting to kick away the ladder on the part of people who have had a valuable university experience themselves. It is a decent instinct but it also contains within it a kind of narcissism that says: be like me, pass exams at school, go to a Russell Group university and enjoy a successful professional career.

But there are strict limits on the number of people who can do that, even if everyone in the society had exactly the same level of cognitive ability. There is also a strict limit on the number of higher professional jobs. Indeed, it turns out that the knowledge economy doesn’t need so many knowledge workers after all; AI is now coming for the middling cognitive jobs that university expansion was designed to train people for.

And isn’t it better to widen the sources of achievement and try to raise the status of ‘not university’ rather than send as many people as possible to university, and in the process raise expectations of professional success that in many cases are likely to be disappointed, while starving the economy of the middling, technical skills it needs?

Tony Blair’s target has turned out to be bad economics, bad politics, and even bad for academic standards, as the value of a first class degree or 2:1 has plummeted.

There is no need for the Government to actually close universities. But thanks to the Covid crisis and an imminent demographic bulge, which would require another 20 or 30 universities to keep to the current proportion of undergraduates, it can encourage university mergers and just allow the proportion of school leavers going to university to slip back down to 30 or 35%, roughly the level when the Blair pledge was made.

Meanwhile if the Government gets its reforms right many more school leavers will find more satisfying, and more economically relevant, alternative forms of non-academic post-school education.

First appeared in Unherd

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