Ministers to ditch target of 50% of young people in England going to university

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Ministers to ditch target of 50% of young people in England going to university

Gavin Williamson has criticised the idea of wanting half of all young people to go on to higher education, describing it as an “absurd mantra” and signalling an end to a pledge made by Tony Blair in the 1990s that has been supported by successive governments.

The education secretary said he wanted to see a revolution in further education and vocational training in England, and updated Blair’s motto, saying: “From now on, our mantra must be further education, further education, further education.”

His speech was a preview of the Department for Education’s white paper on post-school education to be published in autumn, which aims to overhaul the types of qualifications offered by colleges to create a “world-class, German-style further education system”, according to Williamson.

He said: “I don’t accept this absurd mantra: that if you are not part of the 50% of the young people who go to university that you’ve somehow come up short. You have become one of the forgotten 50% who choose another path.

“It exasperates me that there is still an inbuilt snobbishness about higher being somehow better than further, when really, they are both just different paths to fulfilling and skilled employment.”

Much of Williamson’s speech criticised universities for their expansion in recent years, suggesting that they were failing to prepare graduates for the UK’s workforce.

“For too long, we’ve been training people for jobs that don’t exist. We need to train them for the jobs that do exist and will exist in the future.

“We have to end the focus on qualifications for qualifications’ sake. We need fundamental reform: a wholesale rebalancing towards further and technical education,” he said, arguing that workers with higher technical apprenticeships earned more than the average graduate.

Universities UK, which lobbies on behalf of the higher education sector, was quick to reject Williamson’s claims, saying that more than 40% of courses offered by universities had a technical, professional or vocational focus, such as nursing.

Alistair Jarvis, the chief executive of Universities UK, said: “Increasing support for further education is an important move but it would be a mistake to view post-18 education as a binary choice between supporting either higher education or further education.”

Williamson’s comments come after a record proportion of school leavers in the UK applied for university places this year, with more than 40% of 18-year-olds seeking to start undergraduate courses.

In 1999 Blair made a pledge for 50% of young adults to go into higher education “in the next century”. That target was on track in 2017, when half of young people were likely to participate in higher education for the first time by the age of 30, with Blair’s target including those studying for vocational qualifications such as higher diplomas.

While the Tories never explicitly adopted Blair’s policy, the party’s efforts in government have been an endorsement of the aim, including its 2015 decision to abolish the cap on the number of students each university in England could enrol.

But Williamson accused Blair of failing those who weren’t able to go to university, saying: “When Tony Blair uttered that 50% target for university attendance, he cast aside the other 50%. It was a target for the sake of a target, not with a purpose.

“Governments of all colours have failed to give the other 50% of young people the support and investment that they deserve. And all the energy and effort of our policy experts and media has been concentrated on the route that we took ourselves, driving more people into higher education.”

David Hughes, the chief executive of the Association of Colleges, which represents further education and other tertiary institutions, supported the change and said Williamson’s speech was a “rallying call” for a more coherent education system.

He said: For too long, we’ve been fixated on a target set in a different era, by a different leader, when the needs of the country were vastly different. The 50% target felt right then and has now been achieved. It’s time to move on to a more ambitious target, one which recognises that the world has changed and the needs of the country and of its citizens have changed.”

Williamson said that since becoming education secretary last year he had been “shocked to discover that while the number of people going to university has increased, the total number of adults in education has actually fallen”.

Williamson cited sharp drops in the numbers of people studying part-time or in adult education in England as reasons for concern.

Jo Grady, the general secretary of the University and College Union, said further education had been hit particularly hard under the Conservative government’s austerity programme.

“Further education is in dire need of funding, but that is because the Conservative governments of the last decade have decimated it,” Grady said. “Promising to scrap the 50% target of young people going to university might secure a headline but the road to our recovery from the current crisis does not involve cutting the proportion of young people accessing education.”

Williamson’s announcement comes at a time of considerable danger for the higher education sector, which faces losing billions of pounds as a result of the coronavirus outbreak and its aftermath.

This week the Institute for Fiscal Studies said 10 universities in England and three elsewhere in the UK were threatened by severe financial difficulties, with the sector to be hit by losses of £3bn to £19bn next year.