It would be a tragedy if short-term political goals slow the democratisation of HE

Current vice-chancellor (and former Whitehall permanent secretary) Sir David Bell reacts to figures showing the HE participation rate has almost hit 50 per cent

October 2, 2017
University in 1960
Source: Getty

Forty years ago to the week, I began life as an undergraduate student at the University of Glasgow. Little did I realise then that four decades on, universities would still be playing a very prominent part in my life.

Having attended a comprehensive school in the west of Scotland, and with no family history of higher education, I was a genuine beneficiary of the Robbins-led expansion of university places that began a decade or so earlier.

Of course, as a callow 18-year-old, I did not understand or appreciate the grand politics of the 1960s that had given me such an opportunity. Yet, not least through my schoolteachers, I did have a vague notion that people like me going to university was part of a quiet social revolution.

But even in the late 1970s, I was still part of a minority – much less than 20 per cent – who would progress to university at the age of 18. As far as I can recall, there was not a great media debate about the expansion of higher education. Indeed, such a chance for able young people seemed to be part of the British post-war settlement.

Fast forward 20 years to the early years of the Blair government, and the stated ambition of 50 per cent of young people going to university seemed like a revolutionary step forward. Surely the prime minister could not be serious?

Looking back, it seems remarkable now that the 50 per cent target created such a storm. It was as if the natural order was being upended. It was one thing for a few comprehensive kids whose parents had fought fascism to be allowed to go to university. It was another thing altogether to make this a mass opportunity.

Actually, the reaction was rather ugly. Sections of the press went berserk and that British class snobbishness came to the fore. The subtext was that too many people going to university was a "bad thing". I reflected then, as I still do, that presumably it was not such a bad thing for the children of those whose family tradition had always included going to university.

The argument made 20 years ago about the social and economic benefits of going to university, for the individual and society, still stand. Yet, despite the Corbynistas’ desire to airbrush anything associated with Tony Blair from history, it was actually one of the most radical policies of the 1997 Labour government.

It was consistent with the overall thrust of Labour’s education policy. It was also consistent with the strong thread of broadening opportunity that was so appealing electorally.

The large swathes of Middle-England voters who backed Blair were precisely the kind of people whose children stood most to benefit as university numbers were expanded. And, as virtually every university in the country can testify, that is what happened.

So huge credit to Tony Blair and successive Labour education secretaries who stood behind the policy, often in the light of significant political and media opposition. But if crediting Blair for anything is now an unforgivable social faux pas, then better go the whole hog and mention David Cameron too. Given that much of the opposition to the 50 per cent target came from the Conservative Party, Cameron’s modernising project never allowed that view to take hold in government.

And while we are on unfashionable topics, the Conservative/Lib Dem coalition’s bravery on tuition fees enabled us to put in place a financial settlement that consolidated the expansion of higher education. That, in turn, has helped to take us now to the brink of achieving the 50 per cent target.

It is a terrible irony that when we should be celebrating one of the great stories of British social progress – large-scale university participation – politicians from across the spectrum could be in danger of putting it all at risk. And that is a possibility if the current system of funding tuition fees is fundamentally altered, because it is very hard to see any government making up the shortfall.

Everyone these days is against "elites". What a tragedy if short-term political argument undermined the bold ambition of 50 per cent of young people going to university, one of the great anti-elitist education policies of recent generations.

Sir David Bell is vice-chancellor of the University of Reading and a former Whitehall permanent secretary.

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Print headline: Don’t let political goals slow the democratisation of HE

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