Jam today would be better than a plan for tomorrow

October 8, 1999

To expand or not to expand? And if to expand, expand what? Chris Woodhead, head of the schools inspectorate, thinks higher education has expanded enough, perhaps even too much: there will not be enough jobs for more graduates. Martin Weale, of the National Insititute of Economic and Social Research, punctures this hypothesis with evidence that expansion has not so far outpaced demand or debased graduate earnings (page 4).

The Labour Party, having introduced changes that reduce the per capita cost of higher education to the taxpayer, is now keen to see half the population enrolled before the age of 30, while Tom Schuller and John Field (right) are happy with greater involvement but, please, not of 18-year-old school leavers. And as we report (page 1), there are early signs that the groups already under-represented in higher education are being put off the most by its increased cost.

The trouble with debates about numbers is the trouble that confronts all manpower planners: the future is made, not given. There is no answer to how many graduates we will need or of what kind. If politicians really believe in liberating talents, their priority should be to find ways of enabling everyone to follow their interests as far as they can. People who invest in education for themselves are likely to be the canniest judges of what it is useful to know.

This week in Blackpool (page 3) it looked as if the Conservatives, desperate for a policy of any kind, might adopt the idea of freeing the control regime so that universities and students relate directly to each other instead of via planning agencies, and allowing universities to charge differential fees. The Tories are unlikely to be able to act on such policies soon, and Theresa May's idea of reintroducing the binary line does not bode well for a push towards institutional freedom. But it would be useful, after two years, to have an opposition that questioned whether so much planning was really necessary.

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