Higher education used to be exciting and guarantee a good job. Not any more.
A broken promise? Or a noble aspiration that ended in disappointment? Of all the targets set by New Labour when it first came to power in 1997, the real headline-grabber – the one we all remember – was the aim of having 50 per cent of school leavers in higher education. That one felt good, emotionally, however half-baked the thinking behind it.
In this brave new 50/50 world, higher education would no longer be the preserve of a privileged minority, but a natural progression from a normal schooling. And the prospect of universities opening their doors to children whose parents and grandparents had missed out on the chance appealed to people across the political divide. It mirrored the kind of Britain we all wanted to live in.
Nobody focused too much on the small print. What would all these new university entrants be studying? How useful would their degrees be to them in later life? Who was going to pay for all this? It was the headline figure that caught the eye: 50 per cent. Half the population. A reasonable target for a modern democracy.
Twelve years on from the Labour landslide of 1997, the 50 per cent target is as remote as ever, like a mirage in a desert. In 2008-9, 39.8 per cent of people aged between 18 and 30 were in higher education, compared with 39.2 per cent 10 years earlier – absolutely minuscule progress, however you crunch the figures. The proportion did rise to 42 per cent in 2005 but that was a freak year, statistically – there was a surge of students wanting to enrol before the introduction of top-up tuition fees.
Hopes of widening access to higher education have also been cruelly disappointed. Research published earlier this year showed that children from the poorest 25 per cent of families make up just 6.5 per cent of the student population. From Wolverhampton to Newcastle, there is an educational underclass that refuses to go away. No target set in Whitehall can shift it one jot. In the very poorest areas, fewer than one in 20 school-leavers go on to university.
This coming autumn, thanks to the economic recession, is going to be a particularly depressing time for apostles of higher education. Millions of British children still aspire to go university. UCAS applications are up eight per cent on last year. But the requisite university places are not there for them. The Government has had to put a cap of 10,000, down from 15,000, on the number of new places which universities can offer.
The problem is not a lack of interest in learning among the young: it is the lack of a structure in which that appetite for learning can be satisfied. There are not enough good, useful, challenging degree courses to go around. And, with increasing numbers of pupils getting good grades at A level, it has become harder and harder for universities to sort the wheat from the chaff at the application stage.
In previous years, because of the clearing system, most school-leavers who were determined to go on to higher education managed to find a course somewhere, even if it was not their first choice. This year, the gap between supply and demand will ensure an awful lot of disappointed youngsters in August and September.
Well, perhaps they should just swallow their disappointment and get on with their lives. It should not take Sir Alan Sugar to remind us that success in life is not achieved by racking up letters after your name but by hard graft, enterprise and a teaspoonful of arrogance.
Yes, a degree can be a passport to a secure career and a comfortable income, but not even that can be taken for granted any more.
Interestingly, a recent survey indicated that only 49 per cent of employers planned to recruit graduates this year. Companies that would normally comb the universities for talent are tightening their belts like everyone else, which can only mean one thing – graduate unemployment on a significant scale.
Not so long ago, the idea that you could go to university, get a good degree, then have to join the dole queue like everyone else, was anathema. I remember, as a student in the late Seventies, staring horrified at a front-page news story about an Oxford graduate with a first-class degree who was still unemployed nine months after graduating. That story would not make the front pages today; in fact, it would hardly be worth reporting at all. The unemployed graduate, with a five-figure student loan to pay off, but not a sniff of a job, is part of the social furniture of our times.
My elder daughter, now 23, is a medical student in London. She should be able to find a job when she graduates: the country needs every doctor it can get. But for her contemporaries who have left good universities with degrees in arts subjects, the outlook is much bleaker. Some of them have found reasonably paid jobs. Others are still doing the sort of non-professional jobs they were doing before they went up to university. Not surprisingly, they are starting to ask themselves; was it worth it?
It is a question which more and more students are asking themselves while they are still at university. They enrol to read geography or film studies or political science, or whatever, go to the odd lecture, attend seminars, take notes, dash off essays at three in the morning. But, deep down, they get no real enjoyment from their studies, which seem too much like hard work. They have been told that higher education will be good for them: they have not been told that it will only be good for them if they want to do it.
A few years back, the daughter of some friends of mine set gaily off to read English at Durham, having got three As in her A-levels, then dropped out after six months.
"She's throwing her whole life away," wailed her father, a teacher. Not a bit of it. She was just bored, burnt out academically, and in need of a fresh challenge. In the university of life – in her case, working on a sheep farm in New Zealand – she learnt far more than she would have ever have learnt studying Wordsworth and Conrad.
She is back in England now, working for an IT company. Perhaps, in a few years, she will have rediscovered her appetite for academic study and apply for university again, or get a professional qualification. Or perhaps she won't bother, because she is happy and doing well and forging ahead in the working world, unburdened by the debts of her contemporaries who took out student loans and thought university was the answer to all their prayers.
From a utopian viewpoint, whatever your politics, the fact that higher education remains theoretically open to all but, in practice, is only enjoyed by a minority, will remain a source of disappointment. But we shouldn't get too hung up on statistics, particularly ones like that arbitrary 50 per cent target. A university education can be a joy, a privilege, a stepping stone; but it is not a prerequisite for a happy and successful career. --By Max Davidson