Send fewer kids to university, not ever more

Top universities are failing in their mission to recruit more students from disadvantaged backgrounds. But is that really - really - such a bad thing?


On the face of it, the news that top universities are making “little or no progress” in recruiting more poor students for degree courses is an unmitigated social disaster. An extraordinary £1bn has been spent on improving access to universities, and yet when the Office for Fair Access published a report yesterday crunching the data for the academic year 2011/12, the headlines were gloomy.

It is true, of course, that the vast additional impediment to poor students represented by tuition fees is a profound injustice. If we’d arranged our society in the optimal way, high fees would never stop poor children from going to university.

But the picture is much more complicated than some headlines have suggested; and indeed rather than being a matter for despair, it might be that fewer poor students going to university is a good thing – for them, for the university, and for the rest of us, too.

After the war, the university sector expanded at dizzying speed, even before New Labour put rocket boosters under it: from 200,000 students in the 1960s to 600,000 in 1990 and a million and a half just six years later. But British pedagogy couldn’t keep up with this, so that in the process the whole idea of the university as an elite institution collapsed. University changed. Having been the preserve of the very best students regardless of background, they increasingly became the province of all, regardless of ability.

It is unfashionable to say so, both because of the billions thus wasted and the sensitivities trampled on, but even now a colossal number of university students are doing courses of dubious quality at bad universities – and would be better off not going in the first place.

They are regularly sold a pup by careers advisers – which is to say, adults everywhere – who falsely claim that they will be more likely to get a job afterwards. Many won’t. Instead they will come out with thousands of pounds of debt, and regretting not having spent three years in the workplace, or doing vocational courses or apprenticeships.

What matters, then, is not how many or how few poor students go to university, but that the right people do the right courses, and that the disgusting injustice of Britain’s school system – easily the most shameful thing about our country – is put right. Our money would be better spent on supporting state school teachers, those great heroes of our society, than on shovelling ever more students into universities that exist only to serve the spurious egalitarian ideals of successive governments.

It is a national disgrace that many very able poor students don’t start degrees because they’re too expensive. But if fewer poor students are starting degrees which are a complete waste of time, they may come to thank us eventually.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Head of Marketing and Communications - London - up to £80,000

£70000 - £80000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Group Head of Marketing and Communic...

Nursery Nurse

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: Level 3 Nursery Nurse required for ...

Nursery Nurse

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: L3 Nursery Nurses urgently required...

SEN Teaching Assistant

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: We have a number of schools based S...

Day In a Page


Ed Miliband's conference speech must show Labour has a head as well as a heart

Patrick Diamond
A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments