This is what “New” Conservatives get wrong about aspiration

“We currently have far too many young people going to university, and not enough enrolled on Apprenticeships.”

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

A new plan from a prominent group of “red wall” MPs aims to redirect funding from “poor quality” university courses towards “upskilling the country” through investment in technical training.

Authors Jonathan Gullis and Lia Nici say that there is a “common misconception” that young people have the right to attend university – but argue that “they do not have the right to study “Mickey Mouse” courses at the taxpayer’s expense.”

On one level the “The New Conservatives’ plan to upskill Britain” is like a bad rewrite of the England HE reform proposals that the government floated as its Augar response last year.

Minimum entry criteria and restrictions on student loan access to “mickey mouse” courses both make a reappearance – with no attempt to engage with the critiques of those proposals that led to them being dropped or watered down.

As well as various little tweaks to the apprenticeship levy, the big new idea here for those who get 3 or above in English and Maths at Level 3 and at least EEE at Level 4 is to to use the loan repayment system to both warn people off from going to university, and to punish them if they make the wrong choice, while making the system (even) cheaper for the taxpayer:

To make sure that graduates do pay for their university education, and to ensure that prospective students and their parents can make an informed decision about the advantages of going to university, student loan repayment terms must be reformed. If, after a grace period of three years, graduates are earning less than a “graduate salary”, they should have to repay their loans in fixed instalments.

That translates into a minimum of £45 per month until they earn over £31,000 following a three year grace period, albeit with exemptions for “those who do charitable work, work in socially valuable but low paid sectors, are on maternity leave, are registered carers for relatives” – but overall the idea is to incentivise school leavers to “think carefully” before enrolling for a university course that has a low likelihood of leading to graduate-level employment.

After all, says the report, “these are the standard terms for a loan for any other purchase, such as a mortgage or a car loan” – so those scraping those MEC results will have to weigh up the likelihood of them obtaining a graduate-level job after graduation and whether or not they are able to afford a fixed monthly repayment if not and take out the loan on that basis.

Let’s play Twister, let’s play Risk

I can’t quite believe that the big idea is to make it even riskier for low income families/students (who are more likely to not do well at Level 2 and 3) to go to university when it’s them that bear the bulk of the risks already, and I won’t repeat the critique of the proposals that we’ve gone over many times on Wonkhe.

In many ways the thing that the NewCons get really really wrong is suggesting that if you cut down some of the university expansion we’ve had you can fund “the other 50%”, something that Augar was careful to avoid.

But I do think there’s something interesting about the way this type of Conservative views aspiration.

The thing about Kinnock’s speech in 1987 (“why am I the first Kinnock in a thousand generations to be able to get to university”, later plagiarised by Joe Biden) isn’t that it was expansionist per se. As such it was always the next line that mattered more:

Was it because our predecessors were thick? Does anybody really think that they didn’t get what we had because they didn’t have the talent or the strength or the endurance or the commitment?”

What he was tapping into was a sense amongst working class people that they knew their kids were talented – it was that the system is rigged to not recognise it.

The expansion of HE is how we’ve realised the ambition that people have to have their kids’ talents recognised – because we’ve not been able to face down the middle classes’ view that it’s a birthright.

That’s why, for example, the percentage points gap between Polar 1 and Polar 5 UCAS “placed” rates has barely shifted in ten years.

Ironically one of the few Conservatives who understood this used to be Boris Johnson – whose June 2006 pamphlet on higher education stands as a “good enough” riposte to Gullis and Nici:

We may read worrying papers from Swansea University, telling us that our children won’t necessarily benefit from a degree, but the human race is composed of incurable optimists. We are prepared to gamble that we, or our children, will be transformed by the university experience, just as we are willing to gamble on the Lottery, though the calculation is in fact a million times more rational than buying a Lottery ticket.

We know that employers want degrees, and that is in many cases the decisive point. We know that it is nothing to do with our skills set, or what we have learned. It’s about who you are. It’s what economists call a positional good. Your educational achievements are the one acceptable way of sorting you out from other people. Your place of graduation and your degree are a vital sign of who you are and where you are going. Universities are brands and people need to have the imprimatur of the brand, and there is simply nothing we can do to persuade them otherwise.

But while I suspect that does read middle class aspiration relatively clearly, the problem with both Johnson and Gullis/Nici’s analysis is what I think is the misreading of working class people’s aspirations. Because it’s not so much “they want what we have” and more “you’re wrong about my kids”.

And that means that he NewCons really do think that an election winner is “we’ve been pretending that crap A Levels will get you a great job. We won’t lie to you any more. We’ll make the lane you stay in a bit better instead.”

But what always I’ve wanted to hear is “your family and your accent and your confusion about which bread roll is yours at dinner doesn’t mean you’re thick” – not “sorry but you are and if you vote for us we’ll at least not pretend”.

If we must insist on pretending that you can divide the population into head and hand, the idea that a political party will free me from the tyranny of being made to think I’m actually academically bright when really my A Levels signal I’m not just won’t work.

Because it’s true that parents with “hand” kids want their vocational kids to be better paid, regarded and valued by employers and society.

But it’s even more true that no-one can tell the parents of academically bright kids who have otherwise been failed by the state system that their kids are thick, not academically gifted or don’t have things to say about the world.

And not can students themselves who know they are bright and have a passion for English, or Engineering or understanding the impacts of the media tell them they’re wrong just because they fell off the rails in the second year of Level 3.

Maybe there are some deluded working class parents that think their kids are more academically gifted than they really are.

But I’m pretty sure the vast majority of the “mickey mouse” students that are on the “mickey mouse” courses that Gullis et al thinks shouldn’t be there are there because them and their parents thought that they had a shot at finally finding a bit of the system that would recognise and nurture their talent instead of utterly failing them. And I suspect that as long as the NewCons fail to understand that is as long as their MPs will fail to get re-elected.

Because my kids could earn £1bn a year in vocational careers. But when you run a system that through no fault of their own gives them a “fail” or a “D” throughout their teens when they deserve higher and others don’t, I’m going to want a party that enables my kids to prove the graders wrong.

Put another way, I don’t want to hear that my kids won’t be lied to about bad exams not inevitably leading to bad outcomes. Ideally I’d like my kids to be running the country instead of Gullis. The country has settled for at least my kids sitting next to him, and being better at it than him in roughly the same rooms as him.

Because fundamentally, it’s not that I worry that my kids will be “found out”. It’s that I’m sick of being told that when it comes to the academic talents of my kids, the fact that they’re not at private school means that society will never find out how talented they are.

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