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We’re trapped in Tony Blair’s university nightmare - by Madeline Grant for the Telegraph - 20.04.22

While the war in Ukraine rages on, the domestic agenda continues to throw up its own on-going problems, none more so than in higher education whose funding model, like that of the NHS now threatens to overwhelm the very people it is supposed to be helping.

The arguments for wider access to higher education have been well rehearsed, but given the unsustainability of the current policy, the time has surely come to think again, according to Madeline Grant in today’s Telegraph.

Tony Blair’s recent bizarre intervention in the debate - that university attendance amongst school-leavers should rise from 50% to 70% regardless of aptitude or ability - has been greeted with ridicule by many including the former PM’s own son:

“A growing body of thought now recognises that the original target was a mistake – right down to Blair’s son Euan, an apprenticeship entrepreneur who amassed a £160 million fortune by ignoring his father’s wisdom.”

But why has so little been done to tackle the anomalies in the higher education system?

“The reason is simple and depressing – it is just too difficult to confront the appalling incentives and vested interests which underpin the status quo.

Between Blair’s target and the Cameron-era removal of the cap on student numbers, we’ve somehow achieved the unthinkable: creating a system in which it is rational, even financially prudent, for universities to recruit as many students as they can, ideally to full three-year degrees, as cheaply as possible. The explosion of unconditional offers and low entry requirements are two obvious symptoms of this trend, while the neglect of non-university courses has sparked a shortage of vocational skills."

There are other perverse outcomes too:

"Favouring the three-year degree over other credentials arguably makes it harder for young people to differentiate themselves from the graduate herd. This means that where you went to university will trump other factors, and seems more likely to harm social mobility than improve it. Osborne’s thesis also assumes that universities and courses are created equal – or at least, improve their students’ lot, when quite a few confer no obvious benefit whatsoever."

And shockingly:

"According to one recent study by the Institute for Fiscal Studies, around 20 per cent of graduates would have been better off had they never attended university at all – and that is before considering how many employers and sectors that never previously required degrees now do. Around a third of graduates are in non-graduate jobs five to 10 years after leaving university, with taxpayers forced to make up the shortfall in lower-earning subjects and courses. Going to university shouldn’t just be about employability or earnings; but some level of rigour is crucial. Many students’ experience is worlds away from this; one of few marked assignments and little contact time."

in higher education we seem to have created another special interest group which is immune from reform, rips off its users and terrifies the political class into keeping it going in spite of mounting evidence of deep-seated, systemic failure running through the sector from top to bottom.

“The higher education sector employs battalions of people, creating new special-interest groups and altering the political incentives. Many Red Wall MPs would be reluctant to see their local universities – more likely to be non-Russell Group, non-selective or modern – go out of business. Earlier this year, when the Government simply mooted the idea of minimum entry requirements, the chief executive of Universities UK described the proposals as “madness”.

Of course he did.

Worst of all, it is hard to see how to reform the system without inflicting ever-greater pain on students. Soaring loan interest rates seem shockingly unfair when young people have already been so comprehensively clobbered by the broken housing market, tax hikes and the impact of lockdown. But if this sorry affair makes a few more school leavers think twice about going to university, that might be the one silver lining to a very considerable cloud."

The full article can be read here with a link to the original beneath it:

Article for the Telegraph by Madeline Grant - We’re trapped in Tony Blair’s university nig
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