Despite everything, universities have never been more popular

Ian Turgoose wonders whether it is time for opponents of university expansion to give up

Ian Turgoose is the Head of External Engagement at Sheffield Hallam University and a former political advisor to Nick Clegg MP.

This week has seen huge numbers of young people have their place at university confirmed, alongside a large increase in students achieving top A-level grades.

Come September, the streets in and around university cities, towns and campuses will be flooded by record numbers of duvet stuffed cars containing apprehensive parents and eager students looking forward to starting university life. Increasingly more students will be working out how they will be commuting from home.

Why?

Given the last 18 months of relentlessly negative media coverage, some might have thought that this overwhelmingly positive student recruitment picture is hard to believe.

Much of the bad news was around the effects of the pandemic. We had stories, some more sensationalist than others, including students being isolated with only out-of-date food for subsistence, fenced within their halls of residence and having to pay for private accommodation that they weren’t allowed to use.

Whatever your opinion is on these specific examples, it is hard to argue that the last academic year wasn’t anything other than extremely challenging and vastly different from a ‘normal’ university experience. Furthermore, those starting the new term will still be expecting Covid restrictions to have a negative effect on their learning and social life. Although these would be nothing like the limitations that we saw during previous lockdowns, the Education Secretary has already fired a warning shot across the bows of any institution thinking of not returning to face-to-face teaching.

Hostile environment

Apart from the understandable negativity around Covid restrictions, there is also the long-running Government campaign to promote alternatives to university (we will not get into how many of the Cabinet went down this route). Intentional or not, this has often focused on bashing the sector with accusations of poor value for money, culture war related concerns and the existence of ‘dead-end’ degrees. Although, it must be said that the sector hasn’t always helped itself with the occasional own goal.

But despite all these reasons for deciding against studying for a degree – demand is increasing, applications are accelerating, and university has never been more popular. There are no signs of this changing anytime soon. With the demographic upturn set to take an even keener effect in the next few years, the sector is in for bumper recruitment years for the foreseeable future.

Aspiration for the nation

All this must leave the opponents of expanding universities scratching their heads. But anyone seriously expecting student numbers to be curtailed without caps or the introduction of a pejorative fee system are missing the point.

The power of aspiration, the hope to go on and achieve, is a fundamental part of human nature that will endure.

Despite the many negative column inches and dubious policy aimed at higher education over the past couple of decades – the view that a university education is the best way to open the door to a better life is one deeply ingrained within our psyche. Not just in the UK, but throughout the globe. Political parties of all colours would do well to remember this.

Arguing that providing too many people with the opportunity to go to university is a bad thing is not an easy sell. It’s even harder when those making the argument did exactly the opposite, but that’s beside the point.

The long grift

If I was in Conservative Policy Unit HQ I would be ready to admit defeat. The attempt to limit student numbers by promoting alternatives and deriding the university experience is failing miserably. These latest numbers prove that.

Upping the ante and turning to caps or fee reform to limit numbers would be a nailed-on vote loser. Even more so with more students than ever getting good A-level results. The slightest whiff of reducing access to higher education goes down badly with most families. I have the scars on my back to prove that point.

Rather than attempting to turn people off from university, the time and effort of Whitehall policy wonks would be better spent on bending the system to their will. They could help bring about an even more rapid expansion in opportunities for work-place based technical education, benefitting from the strengths of a university brand working in partnership with local colleges and employers. This serves the 50 per cent who they argue don’t want a traditional university experience.

For many institutions, such as my own in Sheffield Hallam, this is pushing against an open door. Degree apprenticeships, working with colleges and employers, and practical technical-based teaching is the norm. There are far more political benefits from being associated with this movement rather than railing against it. As the old cliché goes, if you can’t beat them, join them.

2 responses to “Despite everything, universities have never been more popular

  1. Universities are oversold, but useful to governments as a dumping ground for the unemployed and unemployable youth, Bliar (SP!) knew this when he pushed for 50% plus to go to ‘university’. Further expansion soaks up more potential dole claimants, and keeps otherwise useless academics and failed administrators off the dole as well (academia is a useful bolt-hole for those that fail spectacularly in the commercial world, one former head of (in)Human Resources cost their former employer millions, so fitted right in here), so I fully expect the government to keep expansion rolling, though the cost to the nation of so many unpaid student loans may eventually put pay to that.

  2. The ever increasing popularity of going to University is no surprise to someone like me who opposes University undergraduate and post graduate expansion.

    As a consumer of the University experience you are in a privileged position. You are on a heavily subsidised, in many cases, almost free, 3 year stint, mainly away from your parents in the company of other young people hoping to have a great time.

    What’s not to like?

    With the widening of access and fewer academic barriers to achieve, in some cases open entry (i.e. no specific grades needed) I am not at all surprised at the year on year increase in both applications and entries.

    The University experience is a no brainer when compared to a year of resits, or hard work on low pay or unemployment on even lower income!

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