Is university expansion ‘sucking the brains’ out of UK towns?

Rise of graduate class has reduced status of manual workers, influential figure warns in book that may offer philosophy for Tory reshaping of post-18 education

October 5, 2020
Source: Getty

“Expanding higher education made sense for a few decades in the latter part of the 20th…and early 21st century, but that time is now past.” So runs one of the central arguments of David Goodhart’s recently published book, Head Hand HeartThe Struggle for Dignity and Status in the 21st Century.

The book contends that over recent decades in many Western nations, particularly the UK and US, higher education expansion has produced a “graduate cognitive class” (“head” workers) and diminished the status of manual and care workers (“hand” and “heart” workers). And “a democratic society that wants to avoid a powerful undercurrent of resentment must…provide meaning and respect for people who cannot – or do not want to – achieve in the examination room and professional career market”, it says.

Plenty have argued that too many people go to university. But the depth and nature of Mr Goodhart’s argument – contending that higher education expansion has sucked prestige from vocational education and life from the sort of deindustrialised towns that delivered victory for the Conservatives in last year’s UK general election – could provide the philosophical map for a Tory government already on manoeuvres in such territory.

Higher education expansion was “rational” when professional and managerial classes were expanding, but has now become a “serious problem” in economic, political and cultural terms, said Mr Goodhart, founding editor of Prospect magazine, now head of the right-wing Policy Exchange thinktank’s demography, immigration and integration unit.

An influential figure described as having been “on the winning side of successive ideological battles over the last 25 years”, he told Times Higher Education: “The idea of a successful life has become far too narrowly focused on doing well at school, going to a good university and getting a decent cognitive-professional job. We’ve created a single ladder into this zone of safety and success.”

Mr Goodhart said that his position on higher education “is rather caricatured by people like [former Tory universities minister] David Willetts…Not surprisingly, because David helped to create the bloody thing.”

That refers to Lord Willetts’ highly critical review of Head Hand Heart. The peer objected to Mr Goodhart’s diagnosis of a “brain drain” from deprived towns into university cities by observing that such towns have higher education participation rates well below the national average, suggesting that their problems were “more likely to result from there being too little access to a university education there rather than too much”.

Given deep social inequalities in England, isn’t cutting higher education participation inevitably going to mean university for the more advantaged and further education for the less advantaged?

“Not necessarily,” replied Mr Goodhart. “That depends on the prior issue of whether people are getting a decent basic [school] education or not. People with the…aptitude and ability should go [to university]. But I think the hurdle should be set higher.”

He added of higher education expansion: “To continue doing something really stupid – economically, culturally and politically – because we are an unequal society, and will continue to be an unequal society, just seems to be a stupid logic.”

Mr Goodhart argued that towns such as Rotherham and Mansfield lost their brightest young people to cities with universities, exacerbating “grotesque” regional inequalities. “We’re sucking the brains out of these places,” he added.

There’s an argument that high-status vocational education systems such as Germany’s – which Mr Goodhart admires – benefit from being alongside university systems with relatively flat social and reputational hierarchies, meaning there are no “elite” university graduates to monopolise prestige in the eyes of employers. But Mr Goodhart is not advancing that argument.

“Parity of esteem [for vocational education] is just a ridiculous idea – it’s never going to happen,” he said. “Because the pinnacle of our society will, and should be, the very, very brightest people who go to Oxford and Cambridge and Imperial and whatever.”

The problem, he argued, was that “below the thin layer of the top of our education machine we have produced a bulge of people [graduates] who are, on average, no more particularly able than the people who don’t go to university”.

Doesn’t the loss of status among non-graduates mainly stem from economic choices made by governments since the 1980s – on deindustrialisation and consequent loss of decent manual jobs – rather than from education policy?

Mr Goodhart rejected that. “Our education policy is still operating as if we were the economy of 30 years ago,” he said.

He continued: “AI is going to sweep away a lot of the middle- and lower-level cognitive jobs – in law, in medicine, in accountancy…Yet we’re still churning out – and Willetts [wants] to go on churning out – more and more people with dysfunctional cognitive qualifications.”

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Reader's comments (13)

As a person who has spent 27 years associated with Universities I can confirm that these institutions are allowing a greater number of students to graduate by lowering the standards for grading the student's written work. This has been happening in Australia for the past 40 years when the number of Universities started to grow at an alarming rate. Universities had to do this otherwise most students would fail to graduate which would create an impression that University Degrees were not worth the effort and money, thus discouraging many potential students from obtaining a Degree.
This is not the prime reason for grade inflation. It is the consequence of the marketisatiion of higher education, competition for students and the league table culture,
The British economy has been decimated by the suicidal "clean Brexit" that Policy Exchange advised, and Theresa May, then Boris Johnson, have pursued. It sounds very much to me that this charlatan Goodhart's main concern is creating an obedient serf class for the "brightest people who go to Oxford and Cambridge and Imperial or whatever", by which he means the ruling classes and their privately educated, but essentially talentless brats. Just listen to the satisfaction with which he proclaims that Britain "will continue to be an unequal society." If that's his starting point, then I think this conversation is over.
It does very much seem that right wing pundits like Goodhart are very keen to keep a new generation away from being exposed to critical thinking and "liberal" ideas. Much better to keep them enclosed in local technical colleges than let them meet with a wide range of people from many countries whilst engouraging them to reflect critically. Good grief, they might even get involved in anti-racist or anti-sexist politics!
Middle- and lower-level cognitive jobs in law, medicine, accountancy........ I'm speechless.
“Because the pinnacle of our society will, and should be, the very, very brightest people who go to Oxford and Cambridge and Imperial and whatever.” Intelligence and ability measured by those who have the highest grades, which often do not reflect the actual level of intelligence or ability of individuals. Quite often grades highlight the privilege of those who have had private education / tutors and not the huge leaps in progress from the likes of students who hold down a part time job, have no additional support or increased responsibilities at home.
Really - universities have become the architects of their own demise, liberal thinking denying platforms to those they have a closed mind set to, and then the list of what cannot be heard becoming longer and longer. We then turn to the idea of critical thought - but only if it fitted within the narrow social/political confines of allowed thinking. What a nonsense too many current social/political university courses and policy emanating from them is. Meanwhile those coming out with these ideas become immediately unemployable as they also try to shut down other peoples lives that work and methods of working that are practical. Yes we do need a generation that knows how to actually help life and help a population have a life , and not shut it down bit by bit like the proverbial bully in the play ground exerting thought control. Further why are universities building hotels on grade 1 food producing land. What brown enveloped fuelled critical thought was behind that idea Keele.
I'm not certain whether I agree with this guy or not. I certainly agree that too many people are going to university, and that for many, it's not a beneficial use of three or four years. Worse, though, is indeed the loss of wider societal respect for craft-based skills amongst others. I count myself as a pretty clever guy, but I bow in awe at the skills of the master cabinetmaker that taught me my meagre woodworking capacities, the composer that put together the music I listen to or the Thai chef that made that extraordinary meal last year. Few of these are skills that can be encompassed by the paper-oriented world of university life, but our politicians and policymakers are overwhelmingly a product of university education, and seem only to respect success and skills formulated within those frameworks. As a consequence, many of our students are boxed into a world of work and study that gives them neither joy nor satisfaction.
Goodhart may have a strange way of communicating with words but that doesn't make his ideas wrong. Nor do I think he is "elitist" or a "meritocratic in a "bad" way. People have different talents and some talents are more valued than others and this changes over time and in different contexts. I think we have too many Universities, too many graduates and post graduates studying the wrong subjects in the wrong proportions. We spend too much on the Higher Education of too many and as a result end up with a surplus of expensively educated people of moderate ability and a low return on our investment. We do need more able, talented people amongst our hands and hearts and fewer in the heads. We also need our leaders in all sectors to have a better understanding of those outside their own sector and for them to value others outside their calling in a more appropriate way. Alongside this we need a more appropriate reward mechanism that results in a narrow gap between those at the top and in the middle and at the bottom - a fairer distribution of income. Social mobility should result in less wealth inequality.
Constantly amazed at how the THE panders to these anti-HE voices, but along with its league tables I wonder if those in charge of the THE look back on the days when only a few percent of the wealthiest students were allowed a higher education? Seems like it. Over half of 18yr olds still don't go into HE, try focusing on why successive governments have scorned and looked down on vocational education before pinning the blame on a successful HE sector.
The expansion of the HE sector has benefited a few, but it's the effect of so many useless in reality degree's has harmed many more, the loading with debt however suits those at the top, a very Thatcherite method of people control (sale of council houses to renters). As for exposure to 'critical thinking' as espoused above, there's precious little of that, it's more a monolithic thought process, often based in neo-marxist beliefs that most undergrads are exposed to almost from birth, with continual reinforcement at every stage of their schooling, by teachers similarly indoctrinated by the University system.
My neo-Marxist approach to concrete mix design goes down a treat with students.
Higher education is about turning empty minds into open, enquring ones, by teaching their owners how to think and how to learn. It doesn't really matter what you go on to do afterwords, the ability to think and to learn will stand you in good stead whatever you end up doing, within or without the subject area that you have studied. Of course ideas like this scare those politicians who enter that career primarily for reasons of self-interest rather than with a desire to engage in public service. That's why such individuals bang on about the 'value' of a degree being based solely on how much you can earn afterwards - they cannot imagine any other reason for studying (or indeed doing anything), because that's their motivation. The idea of studying a subject because it fascinates or because knowledge in that area can be used to better the world is alien to them.