Finally, the university tanker turns around
Progressives are, understandably, keen to challenge how policymakers unwittingly promote their own. But they have been blind to how these policymakers have spent 30 years promoting only one type of post-school education, namely the classic model of three-year full-time generalist university degrees aimed at 18-year-olds. .
Mass higher education was meant to mean higher productivity and a more tolerant, socially mobile society. The teachers were in favor of it and the parents saw it as the path to success for their children. It was administratively simple, with universities providing the courses students sought, supported by a generous system of state loans. But now that we’ve reached Tony Blair’s goal of half college dropouts, the unintended consequences of this pattern have become unbearable. The government is today announcing penalties for poor quality university courses, a reorganization of student funding so that more people repay their loans, and a renewed interest in non-university technical and digital courses.
The great rebalancing of further education and training is underway. And not a moment too soon. We need our great research universities to thrive and to continue to attract international students. But from the undersupply of higher education in the 1980s, we are now oversupplying it and the consequences are economic, social and political.
The job market is flooded with academic generalists while their jobs as professional executives have, with few exceptions, stopped growing. A third of graduates are not in graduate jobs 10 years after graduation while we have a chronic shortage of ‘missing’ technical skills and a healthcare recruitment crisis.
Employers have noticed that the flagging system that meant someone with a degree had a high level of general academic ability no longer applies. There is a shift to hiring young graduates backed by the government’s Lifetime Skills Guarantee and other measures. Parents, too, no longer assume a degree is a ticket to safety according to recent polls (although many young people still like the idea of a taxpayer-subsidized three years away from home).
Socially, some people from disadvantaged backgrounds rose to the elite via college, but this also happened before mass higher education. As recently as the late 1980s, when only 20% of graduates went to college, most professionals lacked degrees and took on-the-job training combined with part-time study partiel.
Social mobility scholars argue that mass higher education has instead slowed mobility because universities are monopolized by the middle and upper classes. And because of our predominantly residential system, many of the brightest kids in declining regions leave home and never come back. This graduate/non-graduate schism contributed to Brexit.
What has been called “elitist overproduction” produces two groups of losers: those who didn’t go to college in the first place and who see all the graduate awards, and the bottom half of the class who don’t. don’t get the high-level jobs they expected. Educated people tend to be more extreme and ideological in their thinking: mass higher education plus social media equates to a more intolerant political culture.
Turning the cistern will take time. Record numbers are still heading to college and government sanctions will be easy to avoid. But many of the newer universities are likely to return to something like their old polytechnic status, offering vocational and technical courses (as they already do) on a more flexible basis, to a wider age range of students. I would also like to see a sharp reduction in the 40% of jobs advertised as grad-only, which artificially supports many courses. There are plenty of capable people who have not done well in exams and who, in recent years, have found themselves squeezed out of professional careers in which they could have flourished.
Going to college has always been partly a copycat status game. Rising pay levels for skilled trades and technical professions are now changing ideas about status, as is the rise of what James Kirkup called apprenticeship chic. When, for all but the most academic, not going to college is cooler than going, the rebalancing will be unstoppable.