There are now as many students in the United Kingdom taking higher education courses in further education colleges as there were higher education students in total when Lord Robbins's committee reported in 1963, yet those students account for only 11 per cent of all higher education. Such is the scale of the expansion of opportunity that has been achieved in 30 years.
It was expected that when the Government capped the money and numbers in higher education in 1993, the number taking higher education courses in further education would diminish. It did not. Nor has growth stopped in higher education either. Latest statistics from the Higher Education Statistics Agency show that expansion is unstoppable. The Government may set limits to the number for whom it pays fees, grants and loans, but even their numbers have increased a little while growth has continued strongly in those catagories for whom public subsidy is less - postgraduates and part-timers.
In his column on page 12, Geoff Mulgan warns that education and training as an economic panacea is being oversold and that there may be a backlash. In terms of the effectiveness of training on low-level courses for the unemployed and its relationship with their subsequent earnings, there is indeed evidence that the hype surrounding getting qualifications may have been over done. There is also evidence however, rehearsed last week in The THES by Norman Gemmell, that public investment in mainstream primary and secondary education pays off in economic terms. There is also evidence that companies do well when they take staff training seriously.
It is possible that average figures are obscuring what is happening. The figures for higher education participation suggest that growing numbers of individuals see personal advantage in striving after high-level qualifications. This eagerness comes at a time when, as we are all told endlessly, employment is becoming less secure, and the gap between richer and poorer is widening. The links between higher-level qualifications, lower unemployment and higher incomes are well known.
This suggests that Geoff Mulgan may be right. The line that the reason for public investment is overall economic performance is being heavily plugged this week in the leaflet, Universities Mean Business, produced by the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals and distributed to universities in an effort to mobilise a write-in to members of Parliament. "University teaching and research are engines of the country's economy. A funding crisis threatens to slow those engines . . . For the price of a stamp you can urge your member of parliament to protect the country's competitiveness," it says.
But is this the wrong target? As more and more students pile into universities and colleges, at considerable personal cost in time, effort and money, should we ask instead whether more effort should go into stressing that education helps individuals equip themselves to cope with whatever life may fling at them. Is the best defence of education not narrow economic performance but that it leads to a more interesting, rewarding and fulfilling life?