Breathless reports over the weekend confirmed the worst fears of teenagers and parents across the land: applications to university have fallen around 10 per cent, in response to a rise in tuition fees. David Willetts, the Universities Minister, was trotted out yesterday to repeat his mantra that "going to university depends on ability, not the ability to pay".
The figures have been condemned and interpreted as worrying. In fact, fewer people going to university is a good thing. It depends on who makes up that 10 per cent.
It is too early, as Willetts noted yesterday, to be certain who has been put off. Indeed, applications to some top universities, such as the London School of Economics, have risen by 6 per cent. If, once all the figures are in, there is a fall in student numbers, and if the vast majority of those students are from poor backgrounds, then the Government's policy is shamefully unjust. Pricing the poor out of education is wrong.
But it's likely that those put off from applying will include many for whom university would have been a waste of three precious years.
The gift of a brilliant university education may be the most wonderful present any society can bestow on its members. It is three years to mature, to expand the mind, to have fun, and to make friendships that will last a lifetime. But in trying to give this gift to all those who have the aptitude for it, we have ended up giving something much worse to many who don't.
The vast expansion of the university sector – 200,000 students in the 1960s; close to two million now – has involved the perpetration of a fraud on poor pupils in particular. Many of those go to university being told a degree will help them get a job. But the correlation between degrees and jobs is weaker than ever, and all they have to show for three years is £20,000 of debt and a taste for happy hardcore.
That is fine, so far as it goes; but given better information in advance, many of those pupils would have preferred, and would have been better off, spending three years in work or travelling.
Anything that stops the poor from advancing through education is unfair and should be repealed. But sending millions of students on good-for-nothing courses on a false pretence is just as wrong.