Every year, increasing numbers of young people are able to enjoy the benefits of a university education. But, asks Alison Wolf, what about those who are left behind?
'If 100 percent participation inhighereducationis too much(at least on purelyeconomic grounds), then what is the magic number?' NoROLL-6 Targets are the rage; and in centrally managed, nationalised systems - such as education in Britain - they are a potent force. Civil servants judge and are judged by progress towards them. Government policies and funding formulas, make it their first priority to get the numbers up. Now this country has a new target: 50 per cent of those under 30 years of age to participate in higher education by 2005. But is this a good idea?
In 1950, just 3 per cent of British 18-year-olds went to university. The Robbins committee, in 1963, said that "even at the most optimistic estimate", no more than 8 per cent of young people were likely to qualify for university. But by 1970, we were already well past that figure. Now, a third of all school-leavers go straight into higher education. Based on current numbers of adult students, the Department for Education and Employment forecasts that 10 per cent or so more will enrol in future years. Student numbers passed the million mark in 1988: latest figures show 1.4 million undergraduate students and 1.8 million students in all.
Reaching the 50 per cent target five years from now sounds more or less ambitious, depending how you phrase it. If we take the age group who will reach 18 in 2005, it means an extra 73,000 students every year. This may not sound much compared to the numbers in the system already, but it corresponds to the entire student body in the new post-Robbins universities just a generation ago.
The main rationale for expansion is economic. The target may come from a Labour government; but the Confederation of British Industry has been advocating just this 50 per cent figure for years. Both see education as the key to economic growth, and the case for expansion as self-evident.
The UK economy needs educated people: not just engineers, programmers, and half a million teachers, but millions of people who can write coherent letters, fill in and process complicated forms, explain alternative insurance policies or run hospital laboratories. Proponents of university expansion used to cite manpower needs; but as more and more jobs that were done perfectly well by non-graduates become graduate jobs instead, the main argument has changed. Instead of national "needs", we now focus on individual "rates of return" - the extra amount (on average) that graduates earn compared with their non-graduate contemporaries.
On the face of it, you can make a pretty convincing case for expansion this way. Study after study shows graduates earning far more than people who go to work with just A levels, let alone those with lower qualifications or none at all. Graduates are also less likely to find themselves unemployed; and the gap between them and others seems to be widening.
So it is easy to conclude that, if today's graduates are worth so much, producing more of them will surely boost the economy. From this it is also a small step to questioning the justice of the current expansion target. If 40 per cent is good, and 50 per cent is better, why stop there? Why not 60 per cent? 75 per cent? Why not everyone?
But is it really likely that giving everyone a university education will make every job in the economy more productive? The numbers of professional and management jobs have certainly been expanding - but largely at the expense of those in the middle. Western societies still boast huge numbers of low-skilled but essential jobs that are not going to disappear in a hurry: not least those involved in the daily care of the old and sick, in keeping our streets and cities clean, and in moving around our mountains of possessions.
But if 100 per cent participation in higher education is too much (on purely economic grounds), then what is the magic number? Is it the 50 per cent, which seemed crazily too high only a generation ago? And what makes us think that the current level is too low?
Take another look at the "returns" from a university degree and the results begin to look altogether less clear-cut. For a start, they are averages. Some graduates are earning a lot more than they suggest, and others a lot less. It is also far from self-evident that what people are getting paid for is the skills they acquired in university. It is quite possible that employers are using degrees as a filtering mechanism, to identify the people they think are the most intelligent, the quickest learners - or, indeed, the people who did best at school and gained high levels of the skills taught there. One result of soaring higher education entries is that, if you want to hire someone who got good A levels, you pretty much have to hire a graduate.
This is not all there is to it, of course. People do acquire real skills at university. But this sorting and filtering process is some of the story, and it casts a chilly light on the idea that expansion is self-evidently a good thing - especially when, as seems overwhelmingly likely, it means yet lower spending per student. Whatever facilities those new 73,000 students get, it certainly will not be anything like their post-Robbins 1960s predecessors. One thing, though, is self-evident. Degrees are good news for graduates themselves. Having a university education may not guarantee you a great salary, but it does make hitting the jackpot more likely. And more important, without it, you are not even in the game.
A full century ago, much of Western Europe doubled its university participation rate. An academic observer of the process noted the "dramatic suddenness" with which this made a degree "fashionable, almost a necessity" for those aspiring to elite membership. That increase in student numbers was from just 1 per cent to 2 per cent of the population; but the parallels hold.
The university barrier once guarded only the governmental and professional elites. Now it applies across large swathes of the modern economy. Only graduates need apply. At 18, 22, or 25 we may all know, intellectually, that there is no guarantee we will be a great success: but at the very least, we want to be in there with a chance. That means heading for university. The US economy, in a country that passed 25 per cent participation levels a quarter of a century ago, points the way. The gap between graduate and non-graduate earnings has gone on widening, even though the average monetary returns from an American college degree have fallen in absolute terms. This is why, in a sense, it is irrelevant whether more university expansion is a "good thing". The more relevant question may be whether governments can stop it.
All over the developed world, there have been huge surges in enrolment over the past few decades. Moreover, they have occurred as much because of huge increases in demand as because of deliberate expansionary policies. We know this because in many countries there is no tight government control over numbers of places. There may be an automatic right of university entry for anyone with a senior school-leaving certificate, or a quasi-market so anyone with minimum qualifications can find a place. Whatever the national system, enrolments are all heading upward.
International comparisons suggest that the UK is far from degree satiation. In France, for example, more than half of students now go on to some form of higher education, whether in universities or in lower-status programmes. In the US, college enrolments plateaued for years, and then took off again, so that three-quarters of high-school graduates now go more or less straight to college. Prospects for the high-school dropout, or even the high-school graduate with no college place, look increasingly bleak.
In the short term, though, one awkward fact should give us - and the government - pause. My colleagues Ann Hodgson and Ken Spours have documented meticulously the slowdown in secondary education's "success", as measured by qualification rates. The proportion of 18-year-olds with two or more A levels has been almost static for six years now, at a little under 30 per cent: GNVQs, with low take-up and low completion rates, produce only about 5 per cent more of the cohort with qualifications that lead straight into higher education. For huge numbers of young people, post-16 education remains a chaotic mess.
Perhaps the new students that the target demands will all come via adult access routes. Perhaps the new AS levels will fuel an explosion in A-level pass rates from 2002 onwards. But perhaps, too, the government might do more for the economy and its citizens by focusing its attention on that neglected majority with little of value to the labour market other than some mediocre GCSEs.
Alison Wolf is professor of education at the Institute of Education, University of London. Her book Does Education Matter ? is published by Penguin next year.