Education secretary abandons Tony Blair’s policy to send 50 per cent of young people to university

Ashley Cowburn
·4-min read
The education secretary says he will focus on the 'forgotten' 50 per cent of young people: Reuters
The education secretary says he will focus on the 'forgotten' 50 per cent of young people: Reuters

Gavin Williamson has abandoned Tony Blair’s pledge to send 50 per cent of young people to university, as he claimed there was an “inbuilt snobbishness” about higher being better than further education.

Tearing up the two-decade-old policy, the education secretary said his focus will be on the “forgotten” half of individuals who do not go on to university and claimed there had been a failure to provide them with sufficient investment.

While the cabinet minister said universities play an important role in the UK’s culture, economy and society, he added tthat here are “limits to what can be achieved by sending ever more people to university, which is not always what the individual or our nation needs”.

In 1999, the Labour prime minister set a target of 50 per cent of young adults to enter higher education “in the next century”. Official figures published in 2019 showed that the proportion of individuals in England going on to university rose above 50 per cent for the first time in 2017-18.

During a virtual speech hosted by the Social Market Foundation, Mr Williamson said he did not accept the “absurd mantra that if you’re not part of the 50 per cent of young people who go to university you’ve somehow come up short”.

“It exasperates me that there is still an inbuilt snobbishness about higher being somehow better than further, when really they are both just different paths to fulfilling and skilled employment,” he said on Thursday.

Referring to the 1999 pledge, Mr Williamson said: “When Tony Blair uttered that 50 per cent target for university attendance, he cast aside the other 50 per cent. It was a target for the sake of a target, not with a purpose.”

“Governments of all colours have failed to give the other 50 per cent of young people the support and investment that they deserve. And all the energy and effort of our policy experts and media has concentrated on the route that we took ourselves, driving more people into higher education. As education secretary, I will stand for the forgotten 50 per cent.”

The Department for Education (DfE) said the education secretary will also publish a white paper this autumn setting out plans to build a “high-quality further education system that will provide the skills that individuals, employers and the economy need to grow”.

Mr Williamson added: “As we emerge from Covid-19, further education will be the key that unlocks this country’s potential and that will help to make post-Brexit Britain the triumph we all want. I want everyone to feel the same burning pride for our colleges and the people who study there, in the way we do for our great universities and schools.”

James Kirkup, director of the Social Market Foundation, said: “Britain’s longstanding cultural bias against further and technical education is socially divisive and economically wasteful.

“Socially, too much of our national conversation is based on the implicit judgement that people who don’t go to university aren’t worth as much as those who do.”

But Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said he hoped the minister’s “warm words” will be backed up with adequate funding for the further eduction sector, as he highlighted that colleges were left out of the government’s recent £1bn catch-up fund.

He said: “We are also not sure why the education secretary feels it necessary to denigrate the value of higher education in setting out his ambition for further education.

“FE and HE both have a place in developing the skills landscape and most FE colleges offer higher-level and degree courses, often working in partnership with HE.”

Alistair Jarvis, the chief executive of Universities UK, said: “To suggest there is an arbitrary maximum number of people who should be able to pursue higher education is denying aspiration. What is important is that every student has the choice to follow the path which is right for them to best fulfil their potential.

“Increasing support for further education is an important move, but it would be a mistake to view post-18 education as a binary choice between supporting either higher education or further education. Both universities and colleges have important and mutually supporting roles to meet skills needs in the post Covid-19 economic recovery. The benefits of universities and colleges are felt in local communities across the UK, increasing social mobility, creating jobs and supporting local businesses.”

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