Chris Skidmore was twice Universities Minister between 2018-2020, and is Co-Chair of the All-Party Group on Universities. He is MP for Kingswood.
It is almost 21 years since the then Prime Minister, Tony Blair, announced to rapturous applause at the Labour Party Conference in 1999 that he would set a target of 50 per cent of young people to go to university.
Except that he didn’t. “I set a target of 50 per cent of young adults going into higher education in the next century” were the actual words delivered on stage. No mention of universities, nor that ‘young adults’ should be viewed as merely 18 year olds: anyone familiar with higher education knows full well that, as stated on the UCAS website, that it is defined as ‘any qualification at level 4 or above’, including all technical and vocational qualifications, while ‘young adults’ can mean anyone under 30.
Yet the tag has stuck. Seldom has one single line dominated education policy for the next two decades. The so-called target was reached finally in 2018, but even its success has helped to perpetuate a false divide, allowing for our education system for post-18 year olds to be carved up between the haves and the have nots, the 50 per cent of those who go to university versus the 50 per cent who do not.
Having served as Universities Minister, I have always found the so-called ‘target’ profoundly unhelpful. Yes it helped to increase the number of young people taking undergraduate degrees from 265,000 in 1999 to 414,000 in 2016. But Boris Johnson and Gavin Williamson are right, in its silver anniversary, to retire this out-of-date pledge that helps to permeate stagnant stereotypes about our higher education system.
Forgotten in this false narrative of 50 percent equals ‘more degrees’ is the fact that the modern world of higher education delivers many non-degree, vocational courses, while around seven per cent of all higher education is actually taken in further education colleges. We have seen the introduction of degree apprenticeships allowing for students to enter the workplace immediately while they study usually debt-free, while placement courses and sandwich courses are allowing more flexible learning.
And that’s the point: in the third decade of the twenty first century, the world of work has moved on, so that training, and indeed retraining for the digital age, needs to happen not just for 18 year olds, but everyone throughout their lives. One of the greatest mistakes in education policy over the past ten years has been the decline in part-time learning, that principally benefitted mature learners: a 60 per cent drop since 2010.
Now is the time, especially when the post-Covid recovery will require many in the workforce to retrain for new forms of employment, to invest in a lifelong approach to learning. This should allow for those already in work to access courses, whether in higher or further education, that can be entirely flexible to suit the needs of those seeking work or even still in employment.
Step-on, step off, credit based learning, that allows for a personalised education for the 100 per cent, not one that seeks to divide between two systems. Yet only by ending this perception of 50 per cent studying for degrees pitted against 50 per cent who are not, can we properly begin to have a grown-up conversation about how to achieve a unity of purpose, uniting further education and higher education to skill and reskill an entire nation.
Now is the time too to use the opportunity of ending the broad-brush 50 per cent target, to replace it with a meaningful approach that focuses on outcomes, particularly for the most disadvantaged in society. My greatest objection to the 50 per cent headline grabbing figure is that it masks some of the truly horrifying, persistent divisions in our country. Still just nine per cent of white boys on free school meals living in the North East access higher education; only six per cent of pupils who have been in care will do so.
These divisions are even more acute when the type of university institution is taken into account. In 2018, 17 per cent of students who were eligible for free school meals entered higher education in the UK. Yet only 2.7 per cent of them enrolled at high-tariff providers.
New measures should be drawn to deliver for these young people, based predominately on outcomes, which should mean the successful completion of a course. It is not acceptable for money to be handed over to institutions without delivering the necessary qualification. So called ‘non-completions’ are an unacceptable waste of talent and resource – which is why we need to create a learning system that prevents young people from dropping through the net.
We also need a system that delivers properly for the most disadvantaged. Currently, universities spend around £900 million a year on improving access to universities. Yet, just like the 50 per cent target, this money can too easily be diluted into spending on non-targeted recruitment, on advertising and other recruitment products. It would be far better if we allowed this investment to be ringfenced and spent independently by access charities, many of which do excellent work in identifying talent, and working with pupils from the most disadvantaged pupils to achieve their potential.
Yes, we need more young people, and indeed more people whatever stage in their career, to continue learning and studying as adults if we are to succeed as a modern economy – we should not turn the clock back – but equally let’s make sure we give everyone, regardless of background, an equal chance to learn. More part-time, flexible learning for adults of every age can help achieve this.
I believe that talent is everywhere, yet no one should be denied the opportunity to access an education that they want— it’s clear that too many from the most disadvantaged backgrounds are still missing out, regardless of the 50 per cent target. For the sake of improving education and raising aspirations, let’s ditch the soundbites and the headline grabbing figures and focus on delivering successful learning pathways for all young people, from every background.