Last week, education headlines were dominated by reaction to the Tony Blair Institute’s call for a new target for 70% of young people to go to higher education.
Trailed in The Sunday Times, it was met with a wave of instant reactions. Some were supportive, but many took issue either with the target or with Blair. There were discussions on news channels, a slew of opinion pieces, including from universities minister Michelle Donelan, saying that the target was ‘condescending’ and that “we were listening to the wrong Blair”.
Predictably, much reaction has centred on the numbers of school leavers going to university, missing that the recommendations apply to much broader definitions of higher education and young people. Just like New Labour’s target in the late 1990s, the new recommendations includes higher technical qualifications as well as higher and degree level apprenticeships. But many responses came before the report was published and so these definitions were ignored. See here for one of many examples.
Few waited for the details of the report – and why should they? They had made their minds up years ago.
New Labour’s original 50% target (actually a “Public Service Agreement” to make progress towards 50% participation of 18-30s in higher education) was adopted in 1999 and eventually reached shortly before the 2019 general election. Despite this, the target remains symbolic, especially to opponents. So much so that Conservative ministers have abolished it on several occasions since.
To them, it symbolises much more than education policy. University graduates are less likely to vote Conservative and much more likely to have voted Remain in the EU referendum – and furthermore, their values on a wide range of issues from immigration to climate change and the economy are likely to be different to those voting for Boris Johnson in 2019.
But when the report was published, it was clear that the authors and government ministers do actually agree on lots of things – including the need to tackle low-value degrees and to boost technical training at L4/5, part-time study and higher level and degree apprenticeships. However, the government dislike the idea of “arbitrary targets” – in this case of 60% participation by 2030 and 70% by 2040.
These are obviously different to education targets such as those in the recent schools white paper – for KS2 and GCSE as well as the ambition for 200,000 adults each year on “high-quality skills training” such as at L4/5). But away from the merits of targets, or of having them at other stages and levels of education, the evidence shows that if you increase achievement, then in turn you will increase demand for and progression to higher education. This is not something you can arbitrarily turn off or limit.
In skills reforms, the government also has skin in the game. It is introducing and rolling out T levels to improve technical skills and achievement at Level 3. It is doing the same in higher education, with new Higher Technical Qualifications (HTQs) at L4 and L5. If successful, then demand for L4/5 will grow – as more achieve L3 technical qualifications, many will want to progress further, especially in the sectors where skill needs are at higher levels. Many, of course, will choose to do more technical degree courses at university, and others may enrol in higher or degree apprenticeships. All of these count as higher education numbers and towards the 60/70% targets set out by Blair.
Perhaps participation in L4/5 – Augar’s “missing middle” – will grow to the levels seen in other countries. According to DFE’s own research, only one in ten (10%) of adults in the UK has a Level 4 or 5 as their highest level of qualification, compared to one in five (20%) in Germany and one in three (34%) in Canada. This will boost HE numbers alongside the already growing demand for more traditional degree-level study.
As experiences during Covid have shown, it is far from obvious that ministers will be able to divert demand from the former to the latter. Rather it is more likely that both will grow and that participation will increase across the board.
Then there’s the not inconsiderable matter of levelling up. Of course, the most productive, highest-income places tend to be those with the highest skills levels and the most graduates – that’s largely, though not exclusively, London and in parts of the South East and Eastern regions. London’s workforce already has 58.9% qualified at L4 and above (Inner London at 65% is already well on the way to the 70% level recommended by Blair for 2040). Most other regions are nowhere near 50% either measured by HEIPR or by the proportion of people in workforce with L4+.
In the latter measure, the North West and West Midlands have only 38%, the East Midlands 35% and the North East 34%. Lots of places are well below even these regional averages such as Grimsby (NE Lincs 24%), Mansfield (17%) and Barrow (21%). In these cold spots, the Tony Blair Institute argues for more institutions, including new universities as well as more FE college-based HE. Michael Gove has publicly agreed, and his white paper includes human capital and higher-level skills as a key component of levelling up economic growth, living standards and productivity.
This brings us to the central theme of the report. First that by disaggregating human capital in the growth accounting model, you can see clearer links between the increasing numbers of people with higher education qualifications and increased productivity. That suggests that even though productivity has stagnated since the financial crisis – the little growth that has occurred has been driven by higher or graduate-level skills and increases in human capital.
But this still suggests two major policy issues – first, that there still isn’t enough productivity growth compared to other countries and second, that other policy drivers have even less effect. Here the issue may also be one of disaggregation – policy design and delivery is too often fragmented and siloed from other complementary factors. Different issues, whether infrastructure spending, business investment, human capital or R&D are not sufficiently aligned or joined up with each other. This lack of policy coordination means that in terms of productivity, they are less than the sum of their parts. In the UK, we can add a lack of join up between higher education policy and levelling up as a further element because high levels of regional and local inequality are a further drag on productivity and economic performance overall.
So to return to higher education, what then is our problem? First we don’t seem able to have a very sensible discussion about detailed evidence, especially about human capital and graduates – instead preferring arguments based on our own interpretations or prejudices (with highly selective use of only the evidence that confirms them).
Secondly, we don’t spend enough time thinking about how a more sensible, informed debate might improve outcomes for people, firms and places. A report last week with much less coverage came from the Royal Society showing how improved skills and R&D together can build “absorptive capacity” in local economies and sectors making a difference to firm performance, productivity and wages. Thirdly, opposition to increased participation levels makes little sense when steady progress towards higher participation levels is not just very likely (see Sam Freedman in The New Statesman), but reinforced and supported by the government’s own policy agendas in both schools and skills.
Has it become impossible for us to have a sensible debate about higher education or the role of universities and graduates in relation to either productivity or tackling regional inequalities? Or has Tony Blair’s previous championing of targets in higher education merely made it practically difficult for him to lead it? Perhaps it’s naive to expect any meaningful policy discussions without being seen through the politics of the moment – where red meat dividing lines, culture wars and symbolism too easily outweigh considered evidence and long term thinking.
As in so many policy areas, this can’t last. It’s in all of our interests to think more sensibly about human capital at all levels as well as the role of education institutions, including colleges and universities, in long term plans to address inequality and improve productivity. We are going to need to find a way to have better, more informed debates sooner rather than later. Whatever the merits of specific targets for higher education participation, the Tony Blair Institute has at least tried to get us thinking in this way. And at the very least, they deserve credit for that.