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The suggestion, in a report published by the Tony Blair Institute (TBI) this morning, that the percentage of young people who should go to university should rise to 70 per cent – 70 per cent! – by 2040 felt like an intervention from a bygone era.
It was, after all, Sir Tony’s new Labour government that was behind the still controversial target of 50 per cent achieving degree-level education.
As ever, in his latest missive the former prime minister is sort of right and sort of wrong. At its simplest, the TBI is right when it says that the country should aspire to have a better-educated workforce – and that this should be central to the future of the economy as we move towards an ever more digitised and technological future.
But that is all rather motherhood and apple pie. I mean, who can truly disagree with that?
Where Blair and his people have gone wrong – as Blair’s government at least partially went wrong with its original 50 per cent ambition – is focussing on a rather arbitrary target, not the substance of education for undergraduates. And for that matter, the substance of education for those who do not choose to do a degree too.
The TBI seems to think that expanding the provision of higher education and universities is a social and economic good in and of itself. I fear they are wrong: more degrees don’t inevitably mean a better-trained workforce and a growing GDP. As more than a few thousand graduates every year will tell you, having a degree does not automatically open the door to shiny graduate jobs in the places we need them.
“Far from reaching ‘peak grad’, as some in government argue, we will need many more workers with abilities acquired in HE settings,” the report says. “We must therefore embark on a multi-parliament drive to raise educational attainment substantially with an eye on the skills our workforce will need not today, but in 20 or 30 years’ time.”
It is a shame that the report doesn’t spend more time on the questions of how and what students should study – and who should do the studying – than the actual target. If we learnt anything from the Blair government, it was that a target for a target’s sake rarely works well if you don’t expend as much energy on making sure the means of getting there are substantive. If you don’t, people chase the target and forget the reason for the mission. This problem can of course also be seen across business (including the race for clicks in journalism).
To be clear, it’s pretty much useless to say 70 per cent of young people should achieve a degree at a higher education institution unless you take a very hard look at what they’re studying first. More science, more languages, more technical training associated with the net zero revolution: yes. More psychology and more sports science: I have my doubts.
And then there’s the question of who should do the studying. The TBI report focuses hard on young people and the contribution they are going to make in the future (2040) – and very little on the here and now. What about today’s under-educated adults, who are too often witnessing their jobs being killed off by automation? Surely, it’s just as important that these people are also given the chance to improve their education levels by accessing high-level training today?
The government’s recent pronouncements on the Lifelong Learning Entitlement go some way towards addressing this, to ministers’ credit, but there is so much more to be done in the space of adult education, which has been emasculated by decades of under-investment.
Finally, it would be useful if Team Blair had deployed its intellectual firepower not on degrees and dreaming spires, but on vocational qualifications and apprenticeships. It is in this area that the country is most woefully falling short. It’s far more pressing than university expansion.
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Despite significant efforts in Westminster since the start of the coalition government, there has been a signal failure to put in place the systems and the policies that might allow apprenticeships to flourish. Indeed, there has in fact been a dismal collapse in the numbers of young people accessing and then completing these earn-as-you-learn technical qualifications.
Turning around this woeful state of affairs would also have cut through with those who the country most urgently needs to actually engage with the education system in the here and now. I’ve spent many hours in focus groups in the last two years talking to people who are going to need to retrain if they and the economy are going to flourish in the years ahead, those whose jobs are disappearing.
There is one thing they want to talk about – one educational hope they have for themselves and their children – and, for the most part, it’s not a degree. It’s an apprenticeship. It is considered the gold standard – and every bit as valuable as a degree.
If we were to get the substance of these issues right, many of the problems Sir Tony’s people are trying to solve with a target could be addressed in a meaningful way, with more people of all ages accessing the kind of study and the kind of training the country needs – and more people accessing high-quality apprenticeships in the skills that the economy demands.
Setting an arbitrary target really isn’t going to help anyone on its own. And it would probably make things worse in isolation. This stuff is very, very hard.
Ed Dorrell is a director at Public First