Is university for all working?

The helter-skelter expansion of higher education may be good for individuals but has sharpened value divides in society

David Goodhart

The Lord Ashcroft Building at Anglia Ruskin University: Expansion has diverted students to business and arts degrees (Anglia Ruskin University CC BY 4.0)

The helter-skelter expansion of higher education in the past 30 years is probably the single most profound change to British society in my lifetime. Around two-thirds of our current universities have opened in that period as the proportion of young people going to university has increased from 15 to nearly 50 per cent.

Like most big and rapid changes this transition from elite to mass higher education has its blessings and its drawbacks, and it is too soon to discern all the patterns. The switch from an industrial to a knowledge economy and the increase in administrative-analytical roles, and graduate-only occupations, is one obvious cause and consequence of the expansion. Another change is to the school system which has become more overtly focused on directing pupils into full-time academic study while other forms of technical and vocational education both school and post-school have struggled in the face of the university hegemony.

One, unintended, regional policy consequence of expansion has been a revival of several of the great ex-industrial northern cities which are now quasi-university towns.

Less quantifiable are the political and cultural changes. The last election might have been the first in which the “university seats” made a significant difference — now almost 20 per cent of seats have a substantial university-related vote. Also, the growth of the graduate population is closely linked to liberalisation trends. Leaving home and spending several years among people of different backgrounds tends to make you more comfortable with social change and less concerned with loyalty, tradition and group attachment, the values of small-c  conservatism.

This may be a benign outcome for individuals but it has surely contributed to the sharpness of the value divides in society (that I describe in my book The Road to Somewhere), revealed by support for Brexit on the one hand and graduate Britain’s fierce concern with equalities and identity politics on the other. Openness, individual autonomy and internationalism are key values of modern universities and are often viewed with suspicion by ordinary voters.

Indeed, the roots of the Brexit vote can be found in the alienation caused by the “two masses” — mass immigration and mass higher education. The latter in particular has contributed to the declining status, and often pay, of non-graduate employment.

For those who don’t go to university there is also a big psychological difference between 15-20 per cent of your schoolmates going and 50 per cent going. Significantly, this “shadow” cast by the great expansion is one of the few angles that David Willetts’s stimulating book on the modern university does not explore. It may be a case of love is blind. His answer, in any case, is to send 70 or even 80 per cent of the cohort to university, as is the case in Finland, Sweden and South Korea. 

To expand Britain’s version of higher education in that manner surely fails to take account of both the variety of aptitudes in the population and the variety of needs of the modern economy. It is true, of course, that all developed countries have hugely expanded post-school and university education in recent decades. But Britain’s is the most undifferentiated: it has simply expanded the form and ethos of elite higher education.

Consider the ancient spires of Oxford and the University of Bedfordshire, a new university. In both cases it is the relevant university departments that select from the students who have chosen that course, rather than the students selecting the university, as in much of the US and continental Europe. In both cases what is offered is a three-year general academic degree usually focused on analytical skills. The course will be taught by academics who see research as their primary interest. And the students will, in the main, leave home to board at the university (though a smaller proportion at Bedfordshire), again unlike most students in Europe and the US, who go to college in their home town. 

Willetts, Minister for Universities and Science in the Coalition government, sees no problem with the “massification” of elite higher education. Indeed, he regards the residential system and the focus on research as strengths of our system.

Much of the book is a defence of his own recent reforms, including the increase in tuition fees to £9,000 a year and the removal of any limit on the number of students who can go to university. He is particularly persuasive on the former, pointing out that it has broadened participation (20 per cent of people from the poorest backgrounds now go compared with 11 per cent in 2006), brought more funds into universities and saved public money — the balance of public to private funding of higher education has switched from 60/40 to 40/60.

A system of no upfront payment and a non-commercial repayment arrangement after a student starts to earn above £21,000 a year is a creative and broadly fair system though it can be, and possibly will be, adjusted at the margin with the focus on reducing the swingeing interest rate currently charged.

Willetts is less convincing when taking a broader look at the economic and non-economic benefits to both the individual graduate and society from the expansion. Graduates earn more and are more employable. They are also healthier, less likely to commit crime, more trusting and more likely to volunteer and vote.

He cites research that claims this is more than just a selection effect. But surely most of the effect arises from the fact that a large proportion of people that choose to go to university are already bright, affluent and well-behaved. In Germany, where fewer people go to university and more go to other forms of post-school education, are there noticeably fewer such people?

Willetts is a friend of the low-tariff (meaning easier to get into) new universities, many of which were polytechnics until 1992. Universities are way behind schools in measuring “value-added”, but it is probably the case that the lower-status universities are doing more for their students than Russell Group ones which take most of the already well-educated students from private and top state schools.

About 40 per cent of all students are doing vocational courses such as medicine, nursing, pharmacy, law, surveying and business studies, and Willetts is rightly excited by the industry link-ups at places like Aston and Sunderland. He even has a good word to say about media studies courses.

David (now Lord) Willetts: Always worth reading, but seems to regard higher education as operating in a vacuum (Chatham House CC BY 2.0)

He is, however, too intellectually honest to make this an entirely convincing love letter to universities. An alternative account of the massification of elite universities, mainly drawn from this very book, would point out the following. Universities do not add much educational value, especially in the smarter universities, because academics are researchers first and teachers second, if at all. They do not do much for social mobility. Indeed, by making university almost a compulsory middle- and upper-middle-class rite of passage in recent decades, expansion may have been a drag on mobility. They suck up too much state research funding, some of which would be better spent in autonomous research institutes like Germany’s Fraunhofer institutes. And they have cast a shadow of failure over half the population and hastened Michael Young’s meritocratic dystopia.

Moreover, the avuncular Willetts has draped his arm around “his” universities and happily turned a blind eye to other obvious problems, such as dumbing down. Not only has there been a 40 per cent increase in the proportion of students getting a first in the past five years — one consequence of turning students into fee-paying consumers? — but there is now essentially no entry requirement at all in some of the new universities.

And how do we know that all this “world-class research” is in fact world-class? In the one corner of the humanities that I know something about — immigration, race, multiculturalism — much of the academic research is barely disguised political advocacy. Education departments are often very ideological too. Willetts complains rather meekly about being unable to give a speech at Cambridge because of a student protest but seems oblivious to the intellectual orthodoxy that dominates across the humanities.

The real problem with Willetts’s qualified cheer-leading for the current configuration of higher education is that he tends to see it as operating in a vacuum. When reflecting on his own bugbear of early subject specialisation at age 16 he understands how elite universities distort the whole educational pyramid. But he seems blind to the impact rapid university expansion has had on the rest of post-school education, almost wiping out sub-degree technical education and eclipsing higher-level vocational education.

All the prestige and financial incentives point in one direction, from the schools that are now judged on how many people they can send to good universities to the universities’ bottomless funding system backed by the Student Loans Company and the simple UCAS portal giving easy access to a national system.

“In post-19 education we are producing vanishingly small numbers of higher-technician-level qualifications, while massively increasing the output of generalist bachelors’ degrees and low-level vocational qualifications,” as Professor Alison Wolf puts it. In 2016, 332,000 people got a first degree and just 6,000 completed a higher technical HND or HNC. No wonder employers complain about skill shortages and hire people from abroad.

The adult skills budget, covering all non-university post-school education, has been in free-fall. Further education colleges which were once closely connected to local employers now do mainly remedial class-room teaching for 16-18 year olds or multipurpose community provision such as English teaching for immigrants.

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?

Yet any suggestion that the new universities should be called something else to capture those different missions usually attracts howls of anger. More mildly, John Raftery, Vice-Chancellor of London Metropolitan University, describes the problem as how to avoid “tearing off the epaulettes”.

But this is not about titles — it is about what institutions do. And it is clear that we have a gaping hole between research-led, academic universities and FE colleges. A British version of the German Fachhochscule or the American community colleges is needed to fill the big intermediate skills gap. They should be able to offer two-year courses with a practical rather than academic focus, run by teachers not academics. If students on sub-degree technical courses develop a more academic aptitude they should be able to switch to a full degree course in the same or a different institution.

To sidestep the status-ridden debate about titles we could just call all institutions providing any kind of post-school education a university or a college, and all, including FE colleges, could perhaps come under the umbrella of a fully-fledged university.

Willetts is always worth reading and this book is full of wise and witty observations (my favourite is that many Americans thought that the 1944 Butler Education Act was for training butlers) and challenges to conventional thinking on, for example, the focusing of education spending on the early years. But here he is too bent on self-justification and over-eagerly attributes many desirable trends that would have happened anyway to university expansion. Of course, our great universities are a national asset that, despite hand-wringing about visa-restrictions and counting students as immigrants, attract a rising number of international students (though internationalisation can go too far).

Yet expansion has amplified value divides, weakened our middling skill base and probably done little for what Christopher Lasch called “the general competence of society” (about 20 per cent of pupils still leave school more or less illiterate and innumerate). People in the bottom half of society do not need “rescuing” by spending three years at a new university. They need a better basic academic school education than most of them are getting now, and then a choice of good non-academic vocational/technical education or a university. (Ideally both would offer a residential and stay-at-home option.)

Mass higher education has reinforced the general trend towards elevating cognitive ability as the gold standard of human esteem. The trend may be correcting itself as dissatisfaction with some of the lower-status universities grows. Men who graduated from the 23 lowest-performing British universities went on to earn less than those who did not go at all, according to Barnaby Lenon’s forthcoming book Other People’s Children.

Moreover, the combination of AI replacing a range of middling cognitive jobs, an ageing society, and a reduction in immigration after Brexit, might force us to place more value again on many essential caring and manual/technical occupations.

Over-expansion of the university sector has damaged the status balance in society. Willetts is right that three years away at university discovering oneself and the world can be a positive life-changing experience (it was for me) but it isn’t for everyone and it is not the only route to a happy and achieved life or a thriving economy.

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