Skip to main content

Following the appointment of Sam Gyimah as universities minister, a reduction in tuition fees has become more likely. It is believed that, unlike his predecessor Jo Johnson, Gyimah supports No. 10’s proposal to review the £9,250 a year cap. However, universally reducing fees will not stop universities failing students and ripping off taxpayers.

Expanding higher education has allowed many working-class children to benefit from a university education. Yet it has also created a two-tier system with students from former polytechnics ending up £50,000 in debt working as supermarket shelf-stackers while Oxbridge students still dominate Britain’s elite professions. Around half of all graduates will never repay their loans, with taxpayers left footing the bill.

The huge rise in university attendance has been achieved through grade inflation and dishonesty. A BTEC national diploma – of which I am a not-so-proud recipient – is deemed to be the equivalent of three A levels, enabling less academically successful children to undertake a degree at some of the UK’s worst teaching institutions. Schoolchildren have already seen through this with – as Fraser Nelson has noted – “ BTEC” being used as an insult (Example: “your trainers are so BTEC”).

My own experience of a former polytechnic in London included a term spent being taught how to write an essay alongside students struggling with their degree due to a lack of academic ability or poor English. This was illustrated by the large number who dropped out after their first year. It was clearly exasperating for lecturers who found themselves faced with a class who were often unable or unwilling to engage with the subject matter.

The rising number of graduates has resulted in ever more jobs requiring applicants to have a degree. This is regardless of whether a university education is beneficial to the role. The end result is that almost a third of graduates are in low-skilled employment. At the same time, those who don’t go to university are finding themselves excluded from areas of employment – such as nursing or estate agency – which not long ago were mostly occupied by non-graduates. There is little evidence that this graduatisation of the labour market has increased skills or productivity, with the UK facing the biggest skills shortage for a generation. A situation which, if not addressed, will only worsen after we can no longer rely on skilled labour from the EU after Brexit.

It is evident that the current system isn’t working so what should the Government do about it? A first step would be for teachers, parents and students to have access to good quality information about the outcomes of students once they leave university. Courses which produce high-earning, successful graduates should be able to charge more while taxpayer funding for courses which have no financial benefit must be restricted. This will deter universities from continuing to create degrees which churn out jobless or low-earning graduates. Proposals to shorten university degrees to two years are also worth consideration, given the current situation where a holiday punctuated period of study from September-April (breaking for exams in May) is classed as a year.

Most importantly, there should be a massive shift in resources from the university sector towards other routes into skilled employment. Proposals to introduce T-levels and maintenance loans for students on technical education courses are welcome but do not go far enough.

Proper funding of technical education needs to be accompanied by a shift in perception amongst education professionals, parents and pupils. Frankness amongst teachers and college tutors about the lack of economic benefits of undertaking many degree courses can help with this, combined with education about the well-rewarded careers that alternative options can lead to.

One thing is for certain – as Bright Blue has recognised – young people will not start voting Conservative because the Government lowers the cap on tuition fees. Addressing stagnant wages and low productivity through tackling Britain’s skills shortage is key to raising living standards and delivering a Tory victory at the next election. Investing in technical education is a first step towards achieving this.

David Stephenson is a member of Bright Blue and works in health policy at a national charity. The views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue.