It was politically one of the most damaging decisions under his leadership
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)