This year is the year Tony Blair’s target of having 50 per cent of young people in higher education in the UK was supposed to have been reached. It was an absurd target. The actual number, around 40 per cent, is also absurd. Why on earth is the only valued option for an 18-year-old a three-year academic course at university? Do 50 per cent of employers want graduates? Surely even those who require an academically inclined workforce are not impressed when they see the quality of a degree progressively dumbed down until the 50 per cent target is reached? What is special now about being a graduate?
Okay, Blair’s target may have been well-intended in so far as it appeared to promote social inclusion and equality of opportunity, a universal right to education if you will, but it’s ended up inflating the hopes of young people with false promises of a better life after they graduate. The reality is that many degrees are not worth the paper they’re written on and employers have no way of determining the relative merits of job applicants.
Then, of course, there’s the question of financing the expansion in university places. Asking the taxpayer to pay for it would be like asking turkeys to vote for Christmas and a high-tax economy is the last thing we need right now anyway. So tuition fees appear to be the way to go. But the challenge of implementing a fair system appears to be beyond the coalition government, who are currently at sixes and sevens trying to resolve conflicts between principle and pragmatism. In fact, it’s becoming a fiasco. The proposal to hike up tuition fees means students would start their working lives already up to their eyeballs in debt and, should they have the temerity to pay off their loans early, they would face punitive mortgage style redemption fees. The latest sop to the LibDems involves a proposal that students from poorer backgrounds should not be charged tuition fees for one or two years. Where is the logic in that? Why is socio-economic background relevant if a student doesn’t have to pay back a single penny until he or she is a graduate earning in excess of £21K (according to Lord Browne’s recommendations)? Bizarre. And what if a significant number of student loans are never repaid? Could students become the new sub-prime?
If our children are to enjoy a fulfilling working life, they obviously need to be equipped for it. That does not necessarily mean they must pursue an academic degree. Vocational training can be just as valuable as a degree, if not more so. It may be possible to foster stronger links between universities and industries to achieve this. If not, apprenticeships and work experience programmes could and should be offered on the same terms as university courses, as a viable alternative. For plenty of young people, work placements and vocational training make more sense than an undergraduate degree.
Academic learning is not the only key to a happy, fulfilling life. What we need is a level playing field between academic and vocational training. As there are few opportunities for properly funded work placements and apprenticeships, school leavers have become conditioned into believing that university is the only option. It is not. We need to get back to the situation where a degree represents a mark of excellence for those who wish to pursue an academic route, while at the same time we provide a credible alternative for those who seek to excel in other areas.
The shift towards more vocational training would not save money. My whole point is that it should be funded on an equal basis. The fact is, improving people costs money. But then, so does ignorance and incompetence.