Learning vs earning: Tony Blair’s determination to push school-leavers into further education has been exposed as a flawed policy


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The news from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development that more people in Britain now go on to university than leave education at school level is welcome – but only up to a point. Indeed, the OECD’s report itself notes that despite the increase in those obtaining degrees, there has not been a corresponding rise in basic skills.

This gap between qualifications on paper and practical skills is troubling. As the OECD’s director of education puts it: “Quality and degrees do not always align.” The consequences for the economy and for individuals are potentially disastrous, with too many graduates unprepared for the realities of the workplace.

Since the 1960s successive governments have sought to expand the UK’s system of higher education, slowly but surely opening it up to a wider proportion of the population. There have been economic drivers behind this policy, as well as more noble notions about equality of opportunity. Yet while higher education has been promoted in general terms for half a century, the specific approaches by different administrations have diverged significantly. Polytechnics came and went (and may come again); the primacy of exams has been lost, then regained; funding models have been paraded as if on a carousel. Young people would be forgiven for wondering whether the adults who run the system really have any idea what they are doing.

The dogmatic insistence on the need for more graduates reached a peak when Tony Blair’s Labour Party came to power in 1997 on the back of its “Education, Education, Education” mantra (a slogan which was evidence of the power of rhetoric, if not academic brilliance). At Labour’s annual conference in 1999 Mr Blair declared his determination to raise the number of youngsters in higher education to 50 per cent. Graduates, it seemed, could power Britain’s global renaissance in every sphere.

Yet the Labour Party’s unlimited belief in the power of higher education lacked any substantive grasp of the key point that a graduate was only as good as his or her degree. And in reality, too many university courses in the 1990s and early 2000s lacked rigour. Before the last general election, the Association of Graduate Recruiters said that the “artificial” growth in undergraduates resulting from government targets had compromised academic standards. Not only that, but universities were failing to equip students with the basic skills required for the world of work.

Many employers would suggest that the calibre of candidates for graduate-level jobs is indicative of little having changed in the past five years. The introduction of, and steady rise in, tuition fees was intended to herald a correction: more funding and the development of a market-style relationship between student (customer) and university (supplier) would force an improvement in standards. While the OECD’s report is based on information that preceded the rise in fees to a maximum of £9,000, it remains unclear whether changes in the funding model have had a significant impact on quality of outcome. For as long as research takes priority over teaching, students will have reason to feel hard done by.

It is difficult not to conclude that we have ended up in a situation that is far from ideal. As the OECD notes, some graduates have the same basic skills as school-leavers because there is such variability in the quality of degree courses. Employers are often confused by the differing abilities of candidates who apparently have the same qualification; many graduates end up disappointed because education has not unlocked the heavy door of the jobs market.

Education comes in many forms. Vocational courses, apprenticeships and old-style academic degrees all have their place: but none of them is worth a jot, let alone £9,000 a year, if they leave students unprepared for real life.