A short while ago, by the standards of human history, a degree would have been useless for the bulk of the population. The economy, and the jobs in it, could use only a few people with the high-level abstract skills that a university education conveys.
Now degrees have turned into the base qualification for almost all interesting and rewarding employment. Observers like Alison Wolf are right to question how far this trend can run. But in the micro-economy of personal decisions, going to college is the most mind and wallet-expanding thing a person can do with three or more years of their life. The government's repeated assertion that most young people will go to college a few years from now is likely to be met with enthusiasm by potential students despite problems in broadening their social mix. And no one can blame employers for preferring well-educated young adults with mind-concentrating debts to unfocused school-leavers who lack basic skills.
But while the new economy is generating rewarding graduate jobs, it will not produce them for the majority of the adult population. This means that potential students need a subtle idea of what their degree is for. People who now resent apparent dumbing down may become less hostile if they realise that a significant body of students are studying for the sake of knowledge, not merely for career purposes. If university is a fashion for young people, it is a benign one.
However, our special supplement on further education makes the point that even the expanded university system does not involve as many people as the UK's hundreds of colleges. The new Learning and Skills Council will touch 6 million learners in further education, adult education and training. For the colleges, renewed university expansion means opportunities. They already deliver higher education and will deliver more once foundation degrees get under way. As John Harwood points out, greater participation in university education ought to mean more and better routes to it. In practice that means better FE colleges.
But the sheer number of people it affects means that further education is vital in its own right, not only as a route to something else. FE colleges are especially important as providers of lifelong learning for people who do not wish to uproot themselves to a distant university for years at a time. As degrees get more common, FE colleges may see an increasing number of graduates among their student body.
However, the new LSC and its local manifestations will find that connecting colleges to the audiences they need to be close to is tougher than it looks. Claim and counterclaim are made about the quality of leadership in further education, but many individual cases suggest that this is not a field that attracts top managers. The letter opposite about events at Bilston points to a case in which managers at local and national level have apparently failed to engage with the surrounding community, surely one of the first tasks on the mission statement of any further education college. If some of what happens in FE seems undesirable, the problems of poor management, direction and administration in adult education are much worse.
In further and higher education, present levels of funding per student mean that learning is likely to be taking place in decaying surroundings, with staff whose dedication is taken for granted by their paymasters. The LSC's budget of £6 billion is just £1,000 per learner, implying spartan conditions for teacher and student alike. In universities there are signs that the long decline in funds per student is being reversed, although the education department's letter containing the full details is still awaited. The LSC's task of arguing for a properly funded FE sector is no less vital than the pursuit of an adequate settlement for universities.