Trouble in the trades

March 29, 2002

Why create a nation of academics when it's electricians and plumbers we need, asks Chris Woodhead.

"To question the government's policies," I wrote in the chapter on universities in my book Class War, "is to be dismissed as an elitist whinger." Lo and behold, last Friday I was. The prime minister was extolling the virtues of his famous 50 per cent target and taking a swipe at those who had the temerity to suggest that his policy of packing them in and piling them high was unlikely to benefit either the individual student or the economy.

We already have dropout rates approaching 50 per cent in some of the new universities. Does anyone care? These are students who may well have made considerable personal sacrifices to enrol on their courses. Their failure is unlikely to enhance their self-esteem. Suppose, moreover, they do last the course. Will their degree necessarily secure them the well-paid, intellectually challenging work they want?

Perhaps, if they are lucky or have had the good sense to enrol on a course that leads to a qualification that is valued by employers. The general picture, however, is not good. Margaret Hodge talks breezily about the knowledge economy needing an extra 1.73 million people with higher education skills. The truth, as the Centre for Economic Performance recently pointed out, is that 30 per cent of adults in Britain are already overeducated for the jobs they do. Educate more and more people to degree standard and the inevitable consequence is that higher and higher academic qualifications will be demanded for jobs that do not need high academic qualifications.

In 1999, 35.6 per cent of 21-year-olds graduated - more than in any other member of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. But only 14 per cent of British employees have intermediate-level vocational qualifications compared with 46 per cent of German employees.

We need plumbers and electricians (29,000 and 35,000 respectively over the next five years, according to the Construction Industry Training Board) not - to take the letter C at random - graduates in Caribbean studies, caring services, childhood studies, chiropractic, cinematics, combined studies, communication studies, cosmetics, contemporary studies, creative therapies and critical theory.

Why has the government set this absurd target? I oscillate between two explanations. The more charitable is that Mr Blair and his advisers are simply confused. They do not understand the difference between education and training; they have not thought through the nature of the skill deficit that afflicts British business and industry, and do not, therefore, appreciate the range of different courses needed; and, rightly concerned at the fact that only one in ten working-class pupils makes it to university, they believe that simply expanding the number of undergraduates is going to crack the problem.

The less charitable view is that it is not so much confusion as cynicism. The electorate likes the idea of their children going to university. Young people like it. More students means more votes. More students, therefore, there will be.

A university ought to be an institution in which those young people who have the intellectual ability to benefit engage with the best that has been thought and written. That engagement has no bearing upon any end external to itself. Training, which may, of course, involve the mastery of a considerable body of knowledge is, conversely, an activity in which the student is taught the techniques and procedures needed to perform a particular task.

The government seems to find this simple distinction elusive. Its bleakly utilitarian view of higher education is unlikely to deliver the knowledge and skill the economy needs; its commitment to social inclusion is calculated, through the manipulation of admissions procedures and the dumbing- down of academic standards, to destroy the prize it wants all to enjoy.

In the run-up to the last election the prime minister stated that his mission was "to break down the barriers that hold people back, to create upward mobility, a society that is open and genuinely based on merit and equal worth of all." It was a vision calculated to warm the egalitarian cockles of any floating voter's heart. But what, having secured his second term, is he doing? Why is he destroying universities? Why are not more people manning the barricades? We need more elitist whingeing, a lot more. Now.

Chris Woodhead is a research professor in education at the University of Buckingham and the former chief inspector of Ofsted.

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