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Sam Gyimah MP: We can give student protesters real power by giving them worthwhile degrees - but let's stop all talk of limiting student numbers

Picture 5 Sam Gyimah is MP for Surrey East.

Protest can be a powerful thing. The students marching on our streets should indeed be angry about our higher education system – but not because of tuition fees. They should be angry because graduating from university today is not the game-changer in life many of them hope it will be, but an experience that often just leads to     desperate disappointment. The grim facts are that graduate unemployment is now at its highest level since 1995, with one in five university leavers failing to find a job last year.   The paradox here is that while   Britain undoubtedly remains a world leader in higher education, second only to America, we have graduates being told by employers their degrees are not worth the paper they’re written on.  

And yet, the public debate on universities is focused almost entirely on the funding crisis facing universities and the rise in tuition fees – the ‘inputs’ – or using Oxbridge admissions as a proxy for old class wars. How many times have we read about the “outrageous” rejection of state school pupils with 5A’s by Oxbridge colleges? Yet where is our indignation at the frankly more scandalous fact that worryingly high drop-out rates at some of our universities are leading to one in five students – often from poor backgrounds - dropping out before they finish their degree and gain those vital qualifications? It’s about time the debate focused more on the ‘outputs’ of the system as a whole; specifically, the quality, outcomes and purpose of an expanded higher education system.   Put simply, we’ve got to start making university deliver for all our young people, not just the few who aspire to study at our most elite universities.

For some the solution lies in going back to the ‘good old days’ when there were fewer students and everyone else got on with apprenticeships and learning a trade.  They are both right and wrong.   They are right to identify that the problem is with the supply-side of our HE system; there’s no doubt that some people are doing irrelevant, poorly taught degrees at the wrong universities. But they’re completely wrong to see the solution as lying in the hardly aspirational system of twenty years ago - when only 20% went to university as opposed to the 45% today - because they ignore the brutal realities of the modern labour market.

Thirty years ago most people could walk into a well paid job if they had an undergraduate degree, but nowadays that doesn’t even guarantee you an internship. Online application systems have replaced CV’s and covering letters in most industries, making it harder to swing an interview and hopefully charm your would be employer in a face to face interview.  If you don’t satisfy an employer’s arbitrary degree criteria in your online application you are simply rejected outright - end of story.  

Britain has dropped from 3rd to 14th in OECD rankings of percentage of young people being sent to university. So while we agitate about too many people going to university, our competitors are busy producing the highly skilled workforces of the future.  And the reality of life for today’s graduates - unlike their ‘baby-boomer’ parents who’ve had it all their way; peace and love, jobs, the stock market and property booms – is that they have to compete with this highly qualified, mobile, global pool of talent.

Young people realise that if you want to work for a company nowadays, you’re more likely to rise quickly through the ranks by applying to their graduate recruitment programme than by working your way up from the shop floor. So how do we turn the clock back on this? Dictate that companies can’t hire people with degrees anymore? Exhort global firms to look past the high-level foreign skill-sets on offer and go for sub-standard British ones instead?

And we would also have to find practical ways of limiting the numbers going to university.  It would be brave, and wrong, for any politician to limit the aspiration of those who are the first in their family to go to university or the middle classes who have benefitted so much from the expansion of higher education, by trying to turn the clock back. Incidentally, I wonder how many of those advocating this approach have discouraged their own children from going to university.

Tony Blair got it - his 50% target for young people going to university by 2010 was an attempt to capture this aspiration.  But he failed to provide the stable funding environment our universities need, and didn’t leave behind a system that ensured universities delivered the highest possible standards to the hopeful teenagers who enrol each year.

So the prize in our sights has to be raising the standards of our higher education sectors across the board, so that everyone who works for it leaves university with a robust skill-set for the work place and a quality degree.

But achieving this requires a complete shake-up of our higher education system as we know it.  We need to liberate students from the idea that the only option available to them is the traditional, 18-21 “uni” experience that typifies much of the system.  The government recognises this (see this speech by David Willetts, for example), but it should not be afraid to accelerate the pace of reform. 

Money should follow the choices of students so they can put real pressure on universities to deliver - not just target enrolment numbers but robust degrees that work for the students and for employers.

We need a more flexible and diverse system: more universities like the Open University (distance learning), Birkbeck (part-time), BPP (private college with university status) to offer credible alternatives to the traditional experience.  And apprenticeships should not simply be an alternative to university, but also be a stepping stone. With flexible courses and multiple entry points, people can improve themselves throughout their life and as the demands of the labour market change.

With greater choice comes the need for better information (about teaching hours, employment rates per course, wages once you graduate and so on) on which students can base their university choices. One way to do this is to open up the extensive data universities hold and encourage people to use it – how long before a for universities springs up to allow students to easily compare what’s on offer?

By reforming the supply side we can start to create a system that puts social mobility at its heart, making sure no-one will be left regretting having gone to university when they come out the other side. We can give the passionate students who protested real power to shape their future - by giving them the choice of great universities and worthwhile degrees that make them competitive in the modern labour market. 

Limiting numbers is mistakenly fighting the battles of yesteryear, but a failure to reform the system we have at the moment is not fighting for our young people at all.


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