Schrödinger’s students

With funding crunch time looming, some UK policymakers seem set on limiting education opportunities while advocating their benefits to society

October 14, 2021
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There is a strange mixture of self-loathing and self-preservation in the never-ending debates about access to higher education, what should be studied and by whom.

High office, it often appears, is filled with Oxbridge humanities graduates despairing that Oxbridge humanities graduates occupy so many positions of power.

This tends to be coupled with a conviction both that what the world needs is work-ready skills (apparently absent from undergraduate education), and that the best place for their own children to go after leaving school is Oxbridge, where they will probably study humanities.

It was a juggling act that Boris Johnson attempted at the Conservative Party conference last week, when he said that he “owed everything” to his own tutors (Balliol College, Oxford, Classics), but that “we all know” that some of the “most creative and best paid people did not go to university”. People need “options”, the prime minister said, to learn the “skills right for them”.

At face value, this is an uncontentious point; the trouble starts when it begins to be interpreted, particularly in light of the policy and funding crunch facing higher education this autumn.

Speaking at a fringe event at the conference, Robert Halfon, chair of the House of Commons Education Committee, said “every single course that a student does, whether it is history or archaeology, or whether it is science, should be about work”, Research Professional News reported.

But as Peter Mandler, professor of modern cultural history at the University of Cambridge, pointed out in response, a majority (Mandler says 80 per cent) of graduate jobs have no subject specification, and that should be seen as a source of strength, not weakness. “We have a highly skilled, flexible and trainable graduate labour force – and also a very well-educated one,” he said.

It is worth acknowledging that there is always more nuance in these debates than comes across on social media, or even news reports from conference fringe events.

The reality is that universities are acutely aware of their responsibility to prepare graduates for the workplace – and, indeed, to support the huge number who hold down jobs alongside their studies.

But if the old adage that too many of other people’s children go to university has been hanging around the UK’s higher education policy debate forever, this autumn there is the possibility that it solidifies into policy intervention, for example with a grade threshold restricting access to funding.

The rights and wrongs of this approach have been discussed in detail over recent months, but in this week’s Times Higher Education we hear from Steve West, vice-chancellor of the University of the West of England and the new president of Universities UK, about how it might have affected his own opportunities in life.

“I was destined to be a plumber,” he tells us, describing himself as “not a particularly high achiever” at school, and someone who was affected by undiagnosed dyslexia in his earlier life.

But pursuing an ambition to work in healthcare, he studied podiatry before taking a part-time degree at the University of Westminster while also working in the NHS.

This approach perhaps satisfies the current prioritisation of skills, but West raises the question of who might miss out in future “because of either choices or experiences they have had early in life”.

Elsewhere in our news pages, we review the potential policy shifts this autumn. As ever, there is much speculation about the spectrum of possibilities – a GCSE-based grade threshold for students qualifying to access funding, for example, might affect only a small fraction of those who currently go to university, but more interventionist student number controls could be far more restrictive.

Given the intense and increasingly politicised nature of this debate, it is worth returning to one of the wisest Conservative voices, the former universities minister Lord Willetts, who in an essay for THE earlier this year said he found the “concept of over-education repellent”.

“My starting point is that we are all under-educated. There is always more to learn and more to try to understand. The value of education goes beyond economic returns – although there are legitimate questions about the best use of public money,” he wrote.

That seems to be the right framing for the conversation about the future of higher education and skills: it should be about increasing opportunity and choice, not bolting doors or limiting aspiration.


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