Philip Hensher: University isn’t right for everyone


When Tony Blair, 10 years ago, set the target that 50 per cent of young people should go to university, many observers applauded the idealism but doubted whether the target could be attained. It hasn’t been attained yet overall, although half of young women do now go into further education.

It now seems likely that the target will never be met. The rise in the numbers of places, of 10,000 this year, falls considerably short of the rise in the numbers of applicants. This year, an unprecedented number of the 660,000 applying to university are going to be disappointed.

But perhaps more interesting as an indicator of trends is a small but suggestive increase at another point in the transition between education and work. Many employers have been reporting a considerable expansion in good quality applicants straight out of school: in many cases, 18 year olds who would be perfectly capable of going to a good university and getting a good degree. Increasing numbers of students appear to be choosing to forego the traditional route, and go straight into a school-leavers’ programme.

Interest in City and Guilds vocational qualifications is up 20 per cent on last year. PricewaterhouseCoopers, which offers 70-80 school-leavers’ places, has seen applications double. Network Rail was reported as saying that applicants for its apprenticeship scheme had shown a steady increase in both quality and numbers – there are 20 applicants for every place. Similarly, Marks & Spencer now sees 100 applicants for every place on its management scheme requiring only A-levels.

You really can’t blame a smart school leaver for considering that university might not be worth the candle. First, there is the debt – if you go to university this year, the debt you leave with will amount to the whole of your first year’s salary, at least. And that is if you do well enough to get a good milk-round job. Students are painfully aware that many university leavers with a good degree are still struggling to find any employment a year or two after leaving. If you slip up, and get a 2.2, you might as well forget about mentioning it on your CV and pretend to have spent the previous three years smoking crack in Berlin instead. Employers will almost all consider you to have wasted your time, and prefer a motivated school leaver: and you still have your student debt.

University is still the best engine for promoting social mobility. It introduces young people to an enormous range of possibilities which their families, schools and social circles will not have presented to them. But for some people who bought the one-size-fits-all model which came out of Tony Blair’s random 50 per cent aspiration, the benefits of further education are painfully unclear. The next generation may learn a lesson, and choose a different path.

Good riddance to the Audit Commission

The Audit Commission, the public body responsible for monitoring the expenditure of local authorities and smaller local bodies, has been abolished by Eric Pickles. On the surface, it seems a curious decision. If you want to cut public expenditure, surely you increase the resources available to expenditure watchdogs like the Commission and the National Audit Office, not slash them entirely? Is not the £200m saved by abolishing the Audit Commission a false economy?

Well, you might think so, until you look at some of the details of the Audit Commission’s work. Publicly funded days at the races for its staff; absurd diktats issued to local authorities about rubbish collection and ethnic-status surveys; a proposed salary of £240,000 for its chairman; and, amusingly, £60,000 paid to consultants in the last Parliament, despite its supposedly non-political status, to find ways to “combat the activities of Eric Pickles”. Politicians, after all, are only human, as well as able to see ridiculous abuses. Few of its defenders could find much it had achieved since its exposure of the Westminster homes-for-votes scandal in the 1980s.

The worst of all the details, however, is that the commission reportedly resisted Mr Pickle’s demands to publish details of all public expenditure, including its own, over £500. You can understand why they might be unwilling, having apparently squandered £8,000 at a single event at Newmarket races. But surely even they can see that a public expenditure watchdog which is not in favour of disclosure has long ago stopped doing its job.

The Chinese work ethic is not very David Brent

Ricky Gervais’s successful television series, The Office, has already been remade in America, France, Chile, Russia and Germany, among others. An Israeli version was announced earlier this year. Each local version was given its tweaks: if you have seen the very successful American version, you may have been struck by the huge increase in broad comedy mugging. The basic situation of an overpromoted, incompetent boss, unmotivated junior staff and a psychotic sidekick, however, seems to be universally recognised.

It will be interesting to see whether the newly announced remake is a cultural challenge too far, however. The Office is to be remade for Chinese television. I wonder whether the Chinese attitude to work is possible to reconcile with the programme’s comedy of mutiny and muttering. I was in Taiwan last month, and found myself at a boat racing festival at which several office teams were competing. Why were they doing it, I asked – had they always been keen rowers? No, they answered. But they were proud to represent the honour of the civil service department in which they served, by coming sixth.

There is a comic aspect to that, as indeed there is in the Chinese proverb: “He who rises before dawn, 360 days in the year, can hardly fail to make his family rich.” Whether a grindingly motivated society can be expected to see the joke is another matter. It will be very interesting to see whether a Chinese equivalent of Tim can be found, openly loathing his job and mocking his boss to his face. There must be tens of millions of David Brents in China, as everwhere else. But would a David Brent of any nationality watch The Office, and get the joke?