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University expansion has almost certainly diverted students away from STEM  (science, technology, engineering and matthematics) and technical courses, that prior to 1992 they would have done at one of the 35 polytechnics, into business, arts and social science degrees.

And the claims for the economic success of the elite university model do not stack up. One-third of recent graduates are in non-graduate jobs. The graduate premium in pay is falling, and in any case only tells you about a differential, not absolute incomes. Willetts’s claims that graduates are good for productivity and exports ring hollow given Britain’s weaknesses in both those areas. It turns out that just creating lots of graduates doing the courses they fancy at age 18 does not magically produce a high-productivity economy.

Of course, every parent wants their child to go to university: it signifies security and joining the middle class. And vocational education will never compete with the high road of A levels and a prestigious academic course at a university where you will mingle with the next generation of managers and professionals.

But the British growth model of easy hire and fire plus high labour market participation (and high immigration) and generalist academic training for as many as possible, is a lop-sided one both socially and economically. A degree is a signalling device to employers, but 40 per cent of all new workers have studied an irrelevant subject and an increasing proportion of graduates have poor basic skills.

For all the rigidity of the company-based vocational training system (typical in the Germanic world) it helps to motivate the bottom 50 per cent in the schooling system because the better they do the better the apprenticeship scheme they can join. In Britain, by contrast, if you don’t make the cut to do A levels, which is usually pretty clear by age 13 or 14, the system has little to offer.

When an adviser to the Thatcher governments of the early 1980s, Willetts himself was instrumental in destroying the old craft-based, union-dominated apprenticeship system. But none of the mainly state-funded replacements has ever really worked and the status gulf between vocational and academic has widened. It is not clear that the new initiative of T-levels at schools (will any of the bright kids do them?) and an apprenticeship levy will change anything.

We often congratulate ourselves on having become a less class-bound society in recent decades, and there is some truth in that, but the debate about post-school education remains haunted by class guilt and accusations of snobbery.

Willetts, and others who have shaped policy, are so keen not to kick away the ladder and deny others some version of their own experience — grammar school and Oxford PPE for Willetts — that they commit the equal and opposite sin of saying that their experience, or an inferior version of it, should be good for almost everyone.

The result is a cluster of institutions that proudly bear the title of university, yet are condemned to permanent second-class status compared with the “world-class research” universities. Many of them do important work, much of it vocational, including degree apprenticeships. Willetts tells us to admire the great variety of universities with varying missions. But why compete in a league where you are judged by standards you will never excel in — in terms of research quality or graduate pay — when you could be in one that judges you for what you actually do?
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Peter Smith
April 7th, 2018
12:04 PM
All so very true; I left school at 15 (just before my 16ht birthday) and have done what I call a 'self-directed apprenticeship'. I achieved Chartered Engineer status some years ago without a degree, but that might have been impossible if I had not moved to the USA (I lived there for 22 years) where most companies cared little about degrees after a few years of work, and far more about whether you can actually do the job. The problem I see is that it is assumed a degree is required for electrical engineering (a part of what I do). I started as a junior mechanic (Royal Navy) and have taken the opportunities life has afforded me. Perhaps that is not the path for many, but for myself it has been a lot of fun - roads less travelled perhaps. It is certainly time to re-evaluate just what the university system is actually supposed to be doing.

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