Lord Willetts is President of the Resolution Foundation. He is a former Minister for Universities and Science, and his book a University Education is published by Oxford University Press.
This week’s A level results have led to another round of anxiety about higher education. Much of the debate is bedevilled by five key confusions set out below.
1. Too many people go to university because of Labour’s 50 per cent target
In a speech to the Labour conference in 1999, Tony Blair announced the ambition that 50 per cent of young people should go into higher education.
It was the classic Blairite device of taking a trend and turning it into a target. Higher education is any education above A level standard. Universities are a distinctive institution with the power to award their own degrees, which are the main but not only way of delivering higher education. Further Education Colleges can deliver higher education, too. A Higher National Certificate or an Higher National Diploma in engineering counts as higher education.
I am not aware of any actual attempts to push people into university – though there have been some initiatives to boost access for the most disadvantaged. There certainly hasn’t been a 50 per cent target since 2010, and I don’t believe in practice there ever was one.
Nevertheless, Gavin Williamson managed to get coverage for announcing as Education Secretary he was ending the 50 per cent target. It is as though Ben Wallace earned column inches by announcing he is breaking with a long-standing policy of unilateral nuclear disarmament.
Meanwhile, the number of young people into higher education keeps on rising and has gone over 50 per cent. It is nothing to do with any target. Talk of targets obscures the real reason that more people go into higher education and to university: that this is what they are choosing to do. There is no public policy driving them to do so.
But across the Western world more young people access education at a higher level. Many might regard it is a key feature of modern liberal economies. It is almost the case that every year in every OECD country more young people go into higher education. England is not some eccentric outlier. We are slightly above the average, but close to the US.
2. We should back apprenticeships instead
The actual policy of almost every Government for decades is that more people should do apprenticeships. That is what every Education minster says. Many of them go on to suggest it is better than going to university. But meanwhile, in the real world, the overall numbers of young people doing apprenticeships does not rise.
One reason is that they are expensive for companies and Government – indeed, Conservatives brought in a levy on business specifically to fund them. The countries with lots of them – notably Germany – have a highly regulated labour market with many more licenses to practice, so you need an apprenticeship as a job requirement.
Countries with more flexible labour markets and fewer job guarantees tend to have fewer apprenticeships and more people in higher education. So if we really want apprenticeship rates like Germany we need to change the structure of our economy so it is more like theirs.
3. We should not have abolished polytechnics
Polytechnics are a form of higher education but with more of a focus on vocational courses. William Atkinson’s column on ConHome last week was an elegant account of the argument that they should not have been granted university title by John Major’s Government.
But they were not blown up. Their courses were not closed. Their staff were not sacked. We now have a lot of universities, formerly polytechnics, which still have strong local business links. Sunderland and Tees-Side run auto-engineering courses linked to the car companies of the North East, just as Coventry does in the Midlands. But we are so preoccupied with the Oxbridge model of a university that they are often treated with disdain and the critics want to deprive them of university title.
What makes our “top” universities top is their world-class research. That does not mean that their teaching is better. It is perfectly legitimate for a university to have a different role – such as delivering great vocational and technical higher education focused on the needs of the local economy and conducted applied research most relevant to them.
Indeed, that is really rather useful. We should be more tolerant of the wide range of different missions of modern universities. Even in Germany the Technische Hochschule (which advocates of vocational courses so admire) is increasingly taking university title – they are not schools but higher education institutions.
4. Graduates don’t earn enough which is why they can’t pay back their debt
One of my toughest battles as university minister was to open up access to information on graduate earnings derived from access to HMRC data. It now provides important evidence on how universities and courses perform on this metric.
But it is in danger of being over-interpreted. It is not automatic evidence a course is bad. It may reflect regional disparities – universities in the South East appear to do well whereas universities in low pay regions do badly. Graduates from more advantaged backgrounds earn more for any given degree attainment – probably because their social networks help them into better paid jobs – so universities which take more disadvantaged students are penalised for that in earnings metrics. And salary is not a measure of the quality of education though it is relevant for future loan repayments.
It is possible to expect a typical graduate to pay back for the cost of their education. But that model was seriously damaged when Theresa May significantly increased the threshold above which repayments start. High rates of loan write-offs is the result of a Conservative policy decision, not a sudden dramatic fall in the graduate premium. Now the repayment threshold is being brought down a bit and that will boost repayments.
The so-called “debt” is nothing like a mortgage or a credit card debt and mortgage lenders understand this. It is not deducted from the amount a bank estimate they can loan a graduate to buy a house. It is more like a higher rate of income tax above a high threshold, so commercial lenders treat it as a fixed outgoing. If a gradates is earning £30,000 a year she will be paying back nine per cent on earnings above the threshold of £27,295 – i.e: nine per cent of £2,705, which is £243 a year or just over £20 a month.
5. This is a Conservative problem because graduates vote Labour, so we should stop encouraging young people to go to university
The Conservative Party does indeed have a political problem among young people. As many young people go to university, this looks like a problem caused by higher education. But when you dig into the data and adjust for more young people being graduates and also the bulk of them being Remainers, you still find a big Tory disadvantage amongst young people.
If you still worry about too many people going to university, there is indeed a Conservative problem here but a rather different one. Tories represent the places which send most people to university. Indeed, many Tories try to get their kids into schools which send well over 50 per cent to university. If there is a problem of too many young people going it is in Kensington and Chelsea, in Surrey and Hertfordshire, and the prosperous parts of Cheshire. Conservative MPs and Tory councils preside over this apparent social problem. It is Labour seats which tend to have lowest participation rates.
The best way to way to win over young people is to make it easier for them to fulfil their classic ambitions of getting a decent job, owning their own home, and settling down to raise a family. Going to university still increases your chances of fulfilling these ambitions. Trying to stop young people doing this because of a misplaced fear it makes them socialists would not just be wrong, it would be a major political error.