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  • Writer's pictureAndy Forbes

Every person should go to university... or not?

A key session of the Lifelong Education Institute’s annual conference on 20th March will see a dramatic confrontation of Ali v Frazier proportions on the proposition, “This House believes that every person should go to university”. Three heavyweights on each side, including two members of the House of Lords, will go head-to-head in what should be a fascinating debate.

 

We’ve already had some appetising skirmishes. In 2022, ex-Prime Minister Tony Blair doubled down on his famous 50% target by suggesting that 70% of young people should go to university, a proposal publicly backed by ex-Chancellor George Osborne amongst others. In contrast, at last year’s Conservative Party conference, Rishi Sunak took aim at Blair’s original target, calling it a “false dream” and “one of the great mistakes of the last 30 years”.

 

Before it’s bells ringing and seconds out, a few thoughts to prepare you for the event:

 

First, some facts. In the most recent figures, just over a third (36%) of 18-year-old school leavers went straight into higher education. But Blair’s target was aimed at 18–30-year-olds, and this figure has been above 50% since 2019 – 53% in 2019/20. The fact is, we’ve achieved the Blair target after 20 years of sustained effort, but whether this has had the hoped-for economic impact is another question. One thing is certain; it’s had a big social impact and a transformative effect on many UK towns and cities as university campuses proliferate. But has it made the UK more competitive?

 

The debate has assumed huge political importance because having strong educational qualifications is now widely accepted as a critical factor in achieving career (and salary) success. But unsurprisingly, as more and more people take degrees, the graduate wages premium – the extra earnings associated with degree-level qualifications – appears to be eroding rapidly in many sectors. While some degrees (medicine, science, economics) lead rapidly to a high-earning career, for others (arts, business, humanities) the picture is far more mixed, leading to the recent attack – once again led by Rishi Sunak personally – on “rip-off degrees” and the enhanced scrutiny of the OfS on student outcomes and value-for-money. If more and more people go to university, won’t that exacerbate this problem? Or is the problem being mischaracterised or exaggerated?

 

In all this, it’s important not to conflate the achievement of level 4-7 qualifications with traditional three-year degree courses. Although the great majority of learners opt to do honours degrees, a significant minority - around 17% - go down different routes, such as Higher apprenticeships, professional qualifications, and higher technical programmes. Would it be better to re-frame the question away from “should everyone go to university” to “should everyone have access to higher education”?

 

Behind all this there is a fundamental question of whether society needs everyone to have degree qualifications. There are still many jobs in the modern economy which don’t require high skills, in sectors such as hospitality, care, retail and construction. Is there ever going to be a need for the millions of citizens who work in these occupations to have higher education?

 

There’s lots to talk about; plenty of questions, a wide range of views. For those with ringside seats this should certainly be a really interesting and important debate:


“This House believes that…

Every person should go to university”

FOR

AGAINST

Lord David Blunkett Chair, Labour's Council of Skills Advisers

Liz Bromley Chief Executive, NCG

Nick Hillman Director, HEPI

Lindsay Conroy Apprenticeship Programme Lead, UCAS

Lord David Willets President, Resolution Foundation

Ben Rowland Chief Executive Officer, AELP

 


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