Andrew Tettenborn

Fewer kids should go to university

(Getty Images)

Rishi Sunak said on Tuesday what many of us have quietly suspected for some time. As a nation, we have too few apprentices and too many university students. Why not, he said, look hard at the higher education courses we provide at public expense, and where we see high drop-out rates, or poor employment and earnings prospects, be prepared to axe them and use the money to support apprenticeships? Predictably, the call for a cut in the number of university students has led to yelps of dissent, both from Labour with an election to win, and also from the higher education establishment with sales to safeguard. For all that, however, Rishi has made a good point, although his suggested remedy may need alteration.

What about a bit of old-fashioned academic elitism?

When it comes to the numbers of students we support, opponents of making cuts will point out that most institutions have more applicants than places. That is true, but it is not the issue. The real question is different: granted that the demand is there, is it the right kind of demand? Of course we can understand middle-class teenagers’ desire for a rite of passage, and working-class parents’ insistence on their young getting a degree because of a threat that they won’t otherwise be able to get a job. But neither is very conducive to traditional university education in the sense of a desire to study for its own sake. This may explain why when you visit many university websites the first thing you see is a colourful promotion by its marketing department of a ‘student experience’ (possibly even a ‘world class’ one if the copywriter knows his business), as if college were a kind of adventure cruise with education attached. Perhaps it is also why we read increasingly of people who have gone to university, not enjoyed it, and later regretted wasting an extremely expensive three years of their life.

Furthermore, outside obviously vocational subjects like, say, medicine or law, the need for a degree to get a job may have a surprising degree of self-fulfilment. A curious faith that a degree inculcates smart professionalism leads to more and more jobs insisting that they must be graduate-only (nursing, or teaching in schools, or social work). Furthermore, even in a technically non-graduate profession it is a brave HR officer who, forced to choose between a graduate and a school-leaver, will choose the latter. When this happens, the higher education industry is only too happy to oblige by providing yet more graduates. Ever faster spins the carousel.

Unfortunately all this drives down standards. When more students go to college because they have to get a degree rather than because of a desire to study, already overworked and ill-paid lecturers become more demoralised. It becomes harder to hire great teachers. Furthermore, the less students are motivated to study on their own account, the more demands they make on their teachers to teach at length, and the more complaints they will then make of the lack of contact time they get in exchange for their substantial fees. In short, the arguments for reducing student numbers are strong.

The real problem lies not in the fact that courses are being given which oughtn’t to be, but that many students are in universities when they shouldn’t be. What about a bit of old-fashioned academic elitism? Why not offer everyone a chance of a government-supported apprenticeship or vocational course, but say that no-one gets backing for a stint at university unless they achieve three Cs at A level? If the Tories are looking for a truly egalitarian approach to further education and training, this would be a good place to start. It would put Labour on the back foot as the reactionary supporter of a complacent but broken higher education establishment.