Before the exams meltdown, universities were losing both friends and influence on the Tory benches. They were deemed to be on the ‘wrong’ side of the referendum and then enemy combatants in a low-level culture war. The ministerial message to young people was shifting from the sensible ‘you don’t have to do a degree’ to the openly discouraging ‘too many go to university’. The high watermark of uni-phobia perhaps came last month when cabinet ministers denounced Tony Blair’s target of 50 per cent of children going to university and warned that any institution finding itself in financial difficulties would be ‘restructured’. To say our universities feel unloved by this government is an understatement.
But the furore over the botched exam results has shown that most people are still very keen on universities. MPs have been besieged by thousands of families worried about their children’s future and enraged by grade downgrades and missed university offers. Are ministers really going to respond by telling kids (other people’s obviously) to take short vocational courses instead? Does any MP seriously relish the failure of a university in his patch? I doubt it.
Perhaps the best policy of the coalition era was the abolition of student number controls. Dismantling this ‘cap on aspiration’ was a flagship Cameroonian policy that modernisers rightly predicted would enable tens of thousands more young people from under-represented groups to access higher education. Today, students from disadvantaged backgrounds are more than 50 per cent more likely to attend the most selective institutions than a decade ago. This is what happens when there are more places: universities can enrol bright kids from Sunderland without turning away lavishly educated ones in Surrey.
There has been plenty of focus on the fees universities charge. But this has allowed them to expand — which means more opportunity for everyone. It has been a different story in Scotland: free tuition and the need for tight controls on the number of taxpayer-funded places available for Scottish students have limited progress on widening access.
The return of Soviet Gosplan-style student quotas this year — ostensibly to stabilise recruitment in a volatile year — was a downpayment to those in parliament eager to restrict the expansion of universities in general. But that backfired in this week’s meltdown, constraining universities’ flexibility. Thankfully, it has now been removed. But for how long? Weaker institutions struggling to fill places as selective universities hoover up students will lobby for the return of quotas, but that would be a serious mistake. Artificially constraining supply at sought-after providers and corralling students into universities further down the pecking order is certainly not in the student interest. It would be far better to give financial support to weaker universities to prevent their failure than to restrict the important role that student choice plays in determining the size and shape of the sector.
Parents aren’t convinced by the alternatives to university. A survey by the Higher Education Policy Institute found that 97 per cent of mothers want their kids to go to uni. You can see why. In a knowledge economy, jobs are overwhelmingly created in sectors disproportionately employing graduates. Even Conservative associations want them: more of this cohort of Tory MPs went to university than of any before it: 83 per cent, up from 68 per cent in 1979.
The last few days and weeks have shown us just how much a place at university is valued by young people and their families. Tony Blair’s problem is that he was not ambitious enough with his 50 per cent target. High innovation economies — including the likes of South Korea, Japan and Canada — provide higher education to nearer two thirds of their populations. Our ambition, surely, should be to join them.
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