Leader: Anthem for doomed youth

The Government is all at sea. Its wave of contrary policies mean it is in danger not only of losing a generation but of squandering it

August 20, 2009

What are the merits of restricting access to university when the Government has a target to get 50 per cent of 18- to 30-year-olds into higher education and unemployment is rising among the young? Discuss. Can't answer the question? That's because none of it makes sense.

The target set ten years ago by former Prime Minister Tony Blair to get 50 per cent of young people into higher education by 2010 was designed to make the UK internationally competitive; many rivals have higher targets.

How, then, does restricting the number of students universities take this summer fit this creed? Where is the logic when demand is up and there is a chance to rescue young people from the dole queue?

The number of young people in England not in education, employment or training rose to 935,000 this month, with warnings that unemployment among this group is a "national crisis" and could become the main issue at the next election.

The Government maintains that it has acted to prevent the crisis by offering 10,000 extra places - although it cut them before reintroducing them and did so incredibly late, clearly in reaction to negative newspaper headlines about a "lost generation". It claims the change was entirely due to "unprecedented demand": that will be the 10 per cent increase in applications on last year that no one could possibly foresee in a recession ...

One could see it as a magnanimous gesture if one ignores the fact that the extra places are focused only on the areas that will support Labour's New Industry, New Jobs policy - and that the cash to actually teach them hasn't been provided.

Institutions already facing stiff financial penalties for over-recruitment were given very little time to decide whether to accept these semi-funded places or not. Unsurprisingly, some decided to turn them down. One vice-chancellor said it was "a very odd exercise to be given 48 hours this close to admissions decisions. We turned them down because we couldn't afford to take students on the margins if we are not funded."

Clearing has always been a competitive process, but it is clear that many well-qualified students will miss out this year. The Universities and Colleges Admissions Service estimates that clearing places will be halved. All of this comes at the worst possible time, with a new admissions process in place.

It is the poorest applicants, who typically apply later in the cycle, who will suffer the most, which flies in the face of the widening-participation agenda. Yes, students can always reapply, but will they, or will this turn out to be a huge missed opportunity?

This week is expected to see another rise in A-grade A levels, accompanied by the usual stories of "dumbing down" and "spoonfeeding". But spare a thought for this league- table generation, the most tested ever.

They have done only what has been asked of them by a system fashioned by a succession of meddling ministers looking for ways to measure rather than educate. They will be left clutching a handful of certificates that society appears to deem worthless as they move into a chaotic future with few prospects and little hope.

Theirs is not a lost generation, but a squandered one.


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