by David Goodhart
Tuesday, 8
June 2021
Response
11:56

Tony Blair is still wrong on his 50% university target

It was politically one of the most damaging decisions under his leadership
by David Goodhart
Tony Blair speaking at the 1999 Labour conference

Tony Blair is in the press today with Andrew Adonis defending his infamous 1999 target of sending half of young people to university. But, as with his Iraq war decision, the facts are now in and it is not looking good.

Politically, alongside the 2004 decision to open up the UK economy to free movement of East European labour seven years before all other major EU economies, the 50% target underlined how Labour had cut its ties with middle Britain, let alone working class Britain, and become the party of the liberal graduate class. 

Economically, there is no convincing evidence, taking the mid-2000s as a benchmark, that either decision has had a positive impact on per capita economic or income growth (admittedly punctured by a financial crisis and now Covid) or productivity, which has had a miserable 15 years. Meanwhile, we have a massive “missing middle” skill problem with the lowest number of technical qualifications in Europe.

And, perhaps most important, socially and psychologically, the target sliced the country into two. Blair forgot that we do not have a decent apprenticeship system, as in the Germanic countries, acting as an alternative source of status for those who don’t go to university. He also forgot that we have an overwhelmingly residential university system. Unlike in most other countries, here you leave family and friends to go to college, and in many cases you join another social class. 

The ladder up and out for bright kids from lower income backgrounds is a desirable goal. But pull the camera back and it doesn’t look so clever. Social mobility did not improve as a result of university expansion because it came to be monopolised by the middle and upper middle class, while siphoning off the brightest kids from post-industrial, working class towns exacerbated regional inequality and left those who didn’t make it feeling even more left behind and more inclined to vote for Brexit.

When Blair, and his education adviser Adonis, went to Oxford, only 10 to 15% of school leavers went into higher education and there was demand for more graduates. By the time the target was announced that demand had largely been satisfied. Between 2000 and 2020 the professional and managerial class (higher and lower) barely grew, from 35% to 37%. 

The result? We have a new generation of dissatisfied graduates, one third of whom are not in graduate employment five to 10 years after graduating — and so in most cases handing their student debt back to the taxpayer — alongside desperate employers who cannot fill skilled manual and technical vacancies. 

Fortunately nobody is listening to Blair on this subject. There has been a remarkable recent shift in opinion with parents now more likely to prefer a vocational qualification to a university degree unless their kids are very academically inclined. Moreover, we have the outlines of a policy framework — an (imperfect) apprenticeship levy, T levels, a lifetime skills guarantee — to fill the missing middle and raise the pay and status of non-graduate employment. 

We do not need more universities in red wall towns; most of them already have decent FE colleges which are, at last, getting more funding and can offer degree courses in many subjects. And distance learning means people no longer have to uproot themselves to become better qualified.

Many young people are still choosing higher education because of the Covid-related uncertainty in the labour market but the tide has turned. Of course we still need lots of good, academically rigorous, universities and maybe around 25% of the most academic students should go to them (from the widest possible social backgrounds). For the rest there should be, and soon will be, a much improved post-school education and training offer that is more flexible and customised than the rigid three/four year, full-time, mainly residential, academic degree course, mainly done at age 18/19. 

Education spending should be concentrated more on the 15 to 20% who still leave school with no qualifications, some barely able to read or write. London has shown what is possible and the academies programme should re-focus on underperforming schools and areas.

A final proposal. Many young people want to go to university, even though they are not academically inclined, because it is three potentially exciting years away from parents and small town or suburban life. Some people even argue that for many young people it is the living away from home and learning to mix with a range of different people that is the most important, and liberalising, aspect of university life

So why shouldn’t you be able to leave home to do an apprenticeship or a sub-degree course of some kind? There is all that university accommodation that will need filling when the college rolls begin to fall and most local authorities have hard to let properties that could be rented to students. The internet could make it easy to link up all non-university students or apprentices in a given area. 

This would allow us to hold onto the one unquestionable benefit of the higher education expansion while shedding all the negative consequences that Blair is ignoring. 

David Goodhart’s Head, Hand, Heart: The Struggle for Dignity and Status in the 21st Century is now out in paperback (Penguin) 

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Jon Redman
Jon Redman
1 year ago

Is there actually anything Blair was not wrong on?

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
1 year ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

No. As was obvious about 15 years ago.

Dustin Needle
Dustin Needle
1 year ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

Jeered off stage at the Women’s Institute 3 years into his first term. Was told – warned! – beforehand they were a non-political organisation, but ploughed on with his politically partisan speech anyway. A King Midas in Reverse for the 21st Century.

Last edited 1 year ago by Dustin Needle
Ferrusian Gambit
Ferrusian Gambit
1 year ago
Reply to  Dustin Needle

I had forgotten that particular incident.

Simon Coulthard
Simon Coulthard
1 year ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

It’s super fashionable to criticise Blair but he had his successes. Constant economic growth of above 3% throughout tenure, halved child poverty, peak NHS performance in its history, introduced minimum wage, banned fox hunting, record employment levels

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
1 year ago

“banned fox hunting” Class War! This was the first great salvo of Wokism on a national scale. Agenda only, no purpose otherwise.

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
1 year ago

Constant economic growth of above 3% throughout tenure,

The credit for this belongs to Lawson, Lamont, and Clarke. Blair’s chancellor wrecked the economy.

halved child poverty,

No, he arbitrarily defined it then precision-bombed benefits to move people from £1 a year under his definition to £1 a year over.

peak NHS performance in its history,

Not paid for – all borrowed money

introduced minimum wage,

I’ll give you that

banned fox hunting,

benefited nobody, was simply the party’s revenge for the defeat of the miners’ strike

record employment levels

see first point above, and anyway, it was higher when Labour left office.

kathleen carr
kathleen carr
1 year ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

Record employment levels-if students are in education from 16-21 bound to bring unemployment figures down . Not every not very academic person should be let lose with a soldering iron either-a lot are just doomed to be unemployed.

Bill W
Bill W
1 year ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

Well said.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
1 year ago

The NHS actually become more inefficient under New Label, as revealed in a report that was commissioned, but of course buried, by Gordon Brown.

Matthew Powell
Matthew Powell
1 year ago

I agree with everything written here.

I regret my time at university now. It left me, like many of my generation, over educated but under-skilled and set my career progress back by years, whilst saddling me with a debt which has reduced my earnings.

I love the humanities but I’ve gained far more enjoyment from studying them outside of a university setting. Unless a student has a clear plan for what they are going to achieve from going to university, I wouldn’t recommend they go.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
1 year ago
Reply to  Matthew Powell

I chose to to a vocational course instead of taking up places at various (Russell Group) universities many years ago. I would have studied Eng Lit, which probably would have been of no use whatsoever.
Instead, I set out on a determined effort to read all the classics etc in my own spare time/while commuting, or indeed while at work in some cases. As you suggest, this is much more enjoyable.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
1 year ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

Fraz, I am the oppisite, should have been in University but was a school dropout and so went on to drop out of society entirely for a couple decades – and am a tradesman now, and really always regret not going on to university.

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
1 year ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

I did English Lit. It was my third best subject but I still figured I’d get into Oxbridge off it, and I did.
You have to plan your own degree on a three year horizon – there is no handy schedule of lectures and practicals spoonfed to you that you have to attend – and have the self-discipline to do the actual work without anyone standing over you. You have to make notes now on stuff you won’t look at again for another 2 years, so that when you do, they’ll still make sense. You have to distinguish between what tasks are urgent, what’s only important, and what’s overdue.
The subject matter is of no commercial value, but that’s true of most degrees and at least the skills have been worthwhile. History degrees likewise: thinking about ‘how did we get from thinking this about the Tudors to thinking that about the Tudors’ is a usefully transferrable skill to the law, regulation, and so on.
I wouldn’t do such a degree now, because the discipline is infested with racist wokeism which aims at destroying original thinking and imposing conformity, but I’ve found it handy.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
1 year ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

All good points. In truth I just wanted to be in London and to go and see the Pogues very week (they were still playing in pubs). And my vocational course was considered to be, at the time, the best of its type in the world.

Ferrusian Gambit
Ferrusian Gambit
1 year ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

Another benefit of studying say history, then law after a conversion, is it is a social marker that you are the right kind of person with the family background (and not too lower middle class) not to jump into a vocational degree straight away in a job that with doctors virtually defines the upper middle class or worry too much about spending a few years as a paralegal before a training contract turns up.
Of course Lord Sumpton who advocated the benefits of doing an arts subject first justifies it in terms of having a ‘broader knowledge’ of the world, that is all fine and well (and may even be true) but isn’t the real reason it gives a practical advantage.

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
1 year ago

An arts subject gives you a broader knowledge of FA

Bill W
Bill W
1 year ago

I read history at Oxford some time ago. I am not necessarily a great fan of the Oxford tutorial system which so many rave about. The syllabus was however demanding, requiring being examined inter alia in two foreign language historical texts in the first term, and then almost three years later, the the entire span of “English” history, international history papers, political thought, special and further papers etc. I studied law later and found it a lot less demanding.

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
1 year ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

One sure fire way of getting into Oxbridge, particularly exploited by the great Public Schools was to read Theology.

Described as a cross between Ancient History and Science Fiction, it proved an enjoyable and not particularly arduous experience, or so I am told.

Ferrusian Gambit
Ferrusian Gambit
1 year ago

You should ask Giles Fraser about it if you get the chance.

Ferrusian Gambit
Ferrusian Gambit
1 year ago
Reply to  Matthew Powell

I had a somewhat similar experience too as an arts graduate at a Russel group university. As I’ve said many times before, my decision a few years later to do a STEM degree in the evening whilst working completely turned around my life and prospectives to the point I would have done the STEM subject (and taken appropriate A levels) first if I could teleport back to my 16 year old self.

Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
1 year ago

The University target wasn’t wrong – what was wrong was that it was blanket across all degrees. They should have incentivised towards degrees and skills that are needed, by the most direct means available – financial bonbons like lower or even zero fees and bigger living grants for those courses that are useful.
There will no doubt be howls of protest at my opinion, but isn’t that type of incentivisation precisely the job of government? After all they do that type of behaviour nudging all the time via the tax system, with say for example, the sugar tax. So why not university degrees? It’s no good complaining about the skills gap if successive governments did nothing about it.

Ferrusian Gambit
Ferrusian Gambit
1 year ago
Reply to  Prashant Kotak

In Australia they have reweighted funding towards STEM subject meaning arts subjects end up costing the students more do disincentivising too many of them from taking it. This seems the right way to go.

Last edited 1 year ago by Ferrusian Gambit
Madeleine Jones
Madeleine Jones
1 year ago

I wonder what the long term impact of this will be. I’m an Australian, and I’m unsure whether we have enough STEM jobs to meet the demand. Never saw Australia as a massive employer of STEM graduates.
Plus, STEM is hard and is notorious for high drop out rates (especially at places like UNSW). A decent amount of science jobs require a Masters or Honours. Is this being communicated to high schoolers?

Ferrusian Gambit
Ferrusian Gambit
1 year ago

The dropout side I see as a positive. It means that the state will stop funding people who shouldn’t be in university in the first place early and weeds out those deserving from the undeserving. That is what arts subjects should do, but don’t, thanks to their coddling of mediocre students. University should be hard, if it isn’t then it is a waste of time and money.
Australia has a lot of unmet demand for mining engineers and industrial geologists given the strength of that industry. Civil engineers too given the vast infrastructure needs of the country. It also has a very strong IT sector. Atlassian who make JIRA which is used across the world is Australian and from what I’ve seen the IT market is pretty hot in Sydney and Melbourne. A lot of IT jobs will recruit people from a wide range of numeric backgrounds as maths ability is a fair good proxy of general intelligence. Generally they will not hire arts graduates.

Last edited 1 year ago by Ferrusian Gambit
Madeleine Jones
Madeleine Jones
1 year ago

I agree university should be hard, but my attitude towards dropout rates is ‘why are they even enrolled in the courses in the first place?’ Universities should have higher standards to get in (in most cases). But I also think we need to roll back on the ‘Women in STEM’ or ‘STEM is the future’ jargon. It may make us feel good, but much of STEM degrees are in science, not in TEM (where the real money is to be made). A biology major will have a very different outcome than a computer science major. I think there’s a huge issue with ‘everyone should get a university degree.’ Added with the poor treatment of TAFEs and growing class divisions in Sydney (where I live), we need to make trades, from hairdressing to plumbing, as respectful career decisions.
‘STEM’ is too general of a term for Australia’s economic situation.
My proposed solution is to offer reasonable funding for arts and non-demand fields only when the student is 21+. I’ve just finished my arts degree, starting a business now, and I firmly believe my status as a mature age student helped. The calibre is higher in Arts where students have direction, interest and strong goals. An English literature or history graduate who knows what he or she is doing is well suited for copywriting, public service, publishing, teaching, sales, etc.

Ferrusian Gambit
Ferrusian Gambit
1 year ago

Much of this makes sense except:

‘Education spending should be concentrated more on the 15 to 20% who still leave school with no qualifications, some barely able to read or write. ‘

If you leave school barely able to read or write then I’d suggest you are pretty useless person. Is pumping a bunch of public money really going to turn useless people into useful members of society? It strikes me as self-evident a country’s future and ability to compete against other nations depends much more on investing in the top 15-20% than the useless 15-20% at the bottom.

Last edited 1 year ago by Ferrusian Gambit
Jon Redman
Jon Redman
1 year ago

Yes, it’s a WW1 generals’ tactic. We’re breaking through over here; we’re at a standstill over there; where do we send in the reinforcements? Why, over there, of course.

Ferrusian Gambit
Ferrusian Gambit
1 year ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

Even in war using the stupid and feckless as soldiers is generally a bad idea, and no amount of modern training or money can overcome innate ineptitude. The US Secretary of State McNamara tried it in Vietnam based on some trendy operational theory and it was an unmitigated disaster.
The constantly creeping egalitarianism, valorisation of mediocrity and refusal to invest in excellence is the poison that has fatally weakened post-1945 Britain to the state it is in now.

Last edited 1 year ago by Ferrusian Gambit
Jon Redman
Jon Redman
1 year ago

My point is that using resources to reinforce failure, so as to achieve a uniformly poor performance, is a misuse of them. You reinforce success, not failure.

kathleen carr
kathleen carr
1 year ago

Unless pupil is dyslexic ,or was absent from school noone should leave school barely able to read or write. As we know from letters sent WW1 soldiers who left school at 14 were able to read & write very well. Levels of literacy seem to have gone down. Parents pay tax for their children to receive a basic education -3 R’s.

Ferrusian Gambit
Ferrusian Gambit
1 year ago
Reply to  kathleen carr

The problem is rarely the school. It is lazy parents with semi-feral children who don’t discipline them properly – who often end up blaming teachers – and who often fail to install the necessary fear into the children to make them to knuckle down and learn essential skills. Throwing more money at this will solve nothing.
I learnt to read (and even write at a basic level) before I even went to school at 4 1/2 thanks to parental pressure and expectations.

Last edited 1 year ago by Ferrusian Gambit
kathleen carr
kathleen carr
1 year ago

bit of both-when I was a teacher was appalled by number neglected pupils-by home & school. Its a shame schools cut back on practical subjects like woodwork, cookery etc as less academic can be given a chance to shine. I agree about STEM subjects as though nice to study , little societal value in writing essays on literature. Also a bit subjective as if you are ‘teacher’s pet’ & agree with all their ideas you get good marks -even if teacher is completely off-beam about things, wheras can’t do this so much in maths & subjects like that.

Ferrusian Gambit
Ferrusian Gambit
1 year ago
Reply to  kathleen carr

I am not sure, it depends on the school. I went to a good state grammar where may of the techers liked those boys who were able to debate back and hold themselves in an argument and deliberately encouraged intellectual debate and competition among us. It was thanks to fur rather excellent teachers there I developed a life long love of mathematics, geography and history (and a teacher I never had but who interacted with once who would introduce us to Gilbert and Sullivan, 30s German expressionist films that sort of thing) – which I won the school prize in my final year partly on the back of my A level results but also for my deep engagement with the subject researching and arguing intensely about it, writing essays that were far larger than anything intended for such a level. Not to mention the pride in being a prefect with responsibilities in the school library that aided my research. And this was encouraged as was say chess, or rugby or CCF for students with other interests. That was a far more stimulating intellectual environment that the industrial scale education I experienced at a Russel Group university, though I suppose Oxbridge retains that sort of environment. It is for this reason I continue to be a stauch supporter of the grammar school ideal. It is indeed a shame that the great passion those teachers imparted, especially in history, in some ways did me a disservice in the current economic set up, and yet at the same time I can’t but help credit the values of that school for the versatility and resilience in finding a more useful way out of the predicament a mere few years after leaving.
As I think James Lovelock said who is also a strong supporter of those schools, society gains nothing by not allowing peoples individual talents to be grown and developed among other people of similar intelligence and skills and attempting a false collectivisation of talent against all scientific evidence of innate differences among people.

Last edited 1 year ago by Ferrusian Gambit
Kathy Prendergast
Kathy Prendergast
1 year ago

A century ago, even high school was not seen as something for every young person. It was intended only for kids with real academic skills and aspirations.
Then some forward-thinking dimwits decided that every young person must finish high school (whether they really wanted to or not). So a high school education became drastically dumbed-down, to the point of having no value whatsoever.
The same thing is happening to university education, now.

martin_evison
martin_evison
1 year ago

Just a suggestion: the Russell Group needs to contract and raise quality (cf. International comparators), selection needs to focus on avoiding non-academic biases (as grammar schools, once enabled), the Polys (that is what they still are! Blair was not responsible for the lie of calling them Universities) need to be broken up in favour of nursing, police and other top quality non-degree awarding FE/HE colleges…..

Bob Bepob
Bob Bepob
1 year ago

Elite overproduction for rent-seeking activities.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
1 year ago

Awaiting For Approval, for quoting Matthew in the Bible in my last post. Oh, well, today is the last day for us goats, as we are separated from the sheep and sent off. I wonder if this is a sort of backhanded way of getting rid of the fringe loons, like me, the loud and obnoxious Minority who needs to know his place and that it is not amongst decent Liberals, as my endless bannings in the other places have shown, you need to go along to get along, and I never have.

Good-by all, been fun.

Dustin Needle
Dustin Needle
1 year ago

My take on “Politically, alongside the 2004 decision to open up the UK economy to free movement of East European labour seven years before all other major EU economies”.
This move massively benefited the offices and hospitality industry in London. An influx of cheap, well-educated, presentable young people with excellent customer service and multiple language skills. Lower-skilled young people living on the outskirts of London were the losers, as their “ladder up” was taken away. On-line, we see the consequences on the streets of London boroughs every day.
In fact Labour’s removal of opportunities for Britain’s working class youth has been relentless throughout my entire life. We have Blair to thank for a generation with junk degrees and massive debt, (albeit most will not have the means to repay, so the state picks up the bill anyway).
His professed love of the EU begins and ends at the corridors of power in Brussels. The many positive lessons the Nation can take from neighbours in our wonderful continent (Germanic example above) are of no interest to him whatsoever.
Still, the University towns benefit, and are safe seats as a consequence. Little else matters to Labour.

Last edited 1 year ago by Dustin Needle
Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
1 year ago

‘When Blair, and his education adviser Adonis, went to Oxford, ‘
I thought Oxbridge was for the ‘brightest and the best’. These terrible twins have consistently proved to be among the dumbest and the worst. Their ability to get literally everything wrong is astonishing. Even Philip Cocu got one or two things right at Derby County. All that aside, the good sense of David Goodhart is always welcome.

Last edited 1 year ago by Fraser Bailey
Free Speech Act Now!
Free Speech Act Now!
1 year ago

“We have a new generation of dissatisfied graduates, one third of whom are not in graduate employment five to 10 years after graduating — and so in most cases handing their student debt back to the taxpayer — alongside desperate employers who cannot fill skilled manual and technical vacancies. “
It was no accident to produce superfluous graduates. There is no revolution without the dissatisfied educated, in-debt, aggrieved, cut off from home and family, with few prospects. They buy the transformative rhetoric of utopian programmes that are always nearly in reach…

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
1 year ago

Matthew 25:32 “and He will separate the people one from another, as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33He will place the sheep on His right and the goats on His left”
Sort of like this? Goats go on to university, sheep to work. Sounds good.

Martin Smith
Martin Smith
1 year ago

Young Ewan Blair has made quite a splash, and quite a lot of money, running apprenticeship schemes to ameleriorate the damage done by Daddy’s plan. The son also rises.

Last edited 1 year ago by Martin Smith
Sue Julians
Sue Julians
1 year ago

Didn’t he say very recently that he had been wrong on this target? That apprenticeships and T levels should be the way forwards?
Or was that because his son had set up a company to match companies and apprentices?
Maybe I dreamed it.

Garry McKenna
Garry McKenna
1 year ago

Strange you wrote this article without mentioning Euan Blair? He is the CEO of Multiverse, previously named WhiteHat – a London-based company offering young people alternatives to university.

Last edited 1 year ago by Garry McKenna