Any move to limit higher education participation would be judged against policies of rival advanced economies – and by public opinion
October 20, 2021
Is the Westminster government really going to start reversing higher education expansion in England?
Conservative ministers have talked about “tearing up” the Blair-era Labour target for 50 per cent of young people to enter higher education, while this month’s comprehensive spending review has been expected to announce a minimum entry requirement for loans to study at higher education institutions – to limit or perhaps even reduce student numbers.
Since former Conservative prime minister David Cameron led governments that uncapped student numbers and made student demand the driver of the system, the climate has changed dramatically.
The availability of graduate earnings data by course and institution has stimulated concerns in government about the economic value of expanded higher education; the Conservatives have shifted electoral focus towards Leave-supporting non-graduates in the wake of the Brexit vote; and some in government may have been influenced by commentators on the right who misguidedly claim that university graduates “tend not to vote Tory” – although as recently as the 2015 general election, the Tories were the top party among graduates, making the party’s decline with this group of socially liberal voters seem a product of its strategic choices around Brexit rather than immutable political fact.
Pre-existing Tory scepticism or hostility towards higher education expansion is now mainstream rather than fringe, with potentially major implications for universities and wider society.
“The mood in Westminster and Whitehall has definitely shifted,” said Lord Willetts, a former universities minister who presided over expansion under Mr Cameron. “My fear would be [about] opportunities, especially for younger people from tougher areas, where participation is still low; if those opportunities are curtailed, that would be a heavy blow.”
Perhaps policymakers, politicians and universities should consider how any move to limit or reduce higher education participation would compare with the trends seen in other advanced economies, including those governed by cousins of the Conservatives on the right; while politicians might also reflect on how such a seismic shift might go down with voters.
On international comparisons, Lord Willetts said: “It is the case that most advanced Western countries, most of the time, see increased participation in higher education. Trying to reverse that is an unusual position to take.”
In his recent book Generations: Does When You’re Born Shape Who You Are?, Bobby Duffy, professor of public policy at King’s College London and director of its Policy Institute, notes that the trend for tertiary education participation to increase for each successive age cohort is “the same in every country” across the nations of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.
In terms of the proportion holding a university degree, an older US generation of baby boomers are “on a par with” younger UK “Gen Xers”, he also writes. The former had much greater access to university earlier, partly thanks to the legacy of the 1944 GI Bill, which made having a degree “part of the American Dream”, while the UK had a “much later boom” from the late 1990s onwards.
So the rapid, relatively recent expansion in higher education in England that has alarmed many Tories was arguably a belated catch-up with peers among other advanced economies.
And even in Germany, venerated around the world for its dual vocational system combining in-work apprenticeships with education, “the clear trend…is that the numbers in our dual vocational training are declining, and the numbers in higher education are rising”, said Frank Ziegele, executive director of the Centre for Higher Education, a German thinktank.
A key tipping point was reached in 2018, when the number of new students entering universities surpassed the number of students entering the vocational system; since then, university enrolment has moved further ahead, said Professor Ziegele (the centre-right Christian Democratic Union has led Germany’s federal government since 2005, although it is expected to lose power following the recent election).
The primary driver is “change in the labour markets”, the fact that there are now university degrees being offered and increasingly required in fields such as nursing, midwifery and early years education, which were traditionally entered via the vocational system, he continued.
Meanwhile in Australia, which shares features with the English higher education system, “the ‘too many people go to university’ argument is heard here”, said Andrew Norton, professor in the practice of higher education policy at the Australian National University. “But there is no policy to reduce the number of university students.”
The federal government, led by the centre-right Liberals, last year passed a controversial Job-ready Graduates reform, which reduced tuition fees in subject areas deemed national priorities but more than doubled fees for most humanities and social science subjects.
However, said Professor Norton, “Job-ready Graduates should also over the longer term increase the number of student places”, although that will come “mostly by cutting average per student public funding levels so that unis have to deliver more places to get much the same level of public funding as before”.
Plus, the government is “explicitly trying to increase participation rates in regional areas”, he said. “In other parts of the country, the aim is to increase capacity for a demographic surge in the mid-2020s.”
Besides England, the US is “the only other country where a governing party – in this case the Republicans in some states, as well as previously at national level – has a concern about universities as liberal bastions and sees the growth of participation in universities as a source of growing political opposition to themselves”, said Simon Marginson, professor of higher education at the University of Oxford.
But while some Republican-governed states are cutting higher education funding, that “doesn’t hold out across the board, as there are some conservative states that are investing more in higher education to produce an economic return”, said Adrianna Kezar, Wilbur-Kieffer professor of higher education at the University of Southern California and director of its Pullias Center for Higher Education.
Notably, in Tennessee, a strongly red state, the state’s Tennessee Promise scheme has offered two years of tuition-free community college or technical school to all high school graduates since 2014, regardless of income, in a bid to boost economic and workforce development by increasing the state’s proportion of residents with a post-secondary qualification.
In addition to having to measure up against rival economies, the Westminster government will be judged by voter opinion – where higher education access might have emotional traction, connecting as it does with people’s hopes for their own lives and those of their children.
“There’s no evidence that aspirations for higher education have diminished in England, and it would contradict everything we know about modern societies if it had,” said Professor Marginson.
While researching his book on generational differences, Professor Duffy analysed responses over time, across different generations, to the questions in the long-running British Social Attitudes survey that ask respondents whether they think “opportunities for young people in Britain to go on to higher education” should be “increased” or “reduced”.
Looking at results between 1983 and 2017, Professor Duffy said, “there has been a growing generational division in support for expansion of higher education opportunities”. He added: “In the 1990s and early 2000s, there was very little difference in views between the oldest and youngest generations at the time, and there was widespread support for expansion – but now we have around half or more of younger generations like Gen Z saying that HE opportunities should be increased, compared with only three in 10 among older generations.
But, he went on, “this is not to say that these [older] groups want to see a reduction – in fact, only around 15 per cent of older generations say that should be the case. The majority view among even the older generations…is to increase opportunities or at least keep them the same.”
A Westminster government that genuinely tries to restrict or reduce higher education participation might risk looking out of step not just with other advanced economies and with public opinion, but with its own ambitions to create a “high-skill, high-wage” economy.
Perhaps we should think critically about whether the loud voices from some in the Department for Education (DfE) arguing against expansion are viewed as coherent elsewhere in government.
No 10 (rather than the DfE) has announced a plan to create lifelong loans allowing adults to study on short courses while they work, building to full degrees if they want – which does not fit with a “too many people go to university” narrative.
In Germany, which has more of a high-skill, high-wage economy than the UK, Professor Ziegele said there was increasing attention on the argument that there should be “more permeability” between the vocational and university tracks. That, he said, is reflected in emerging examples of universities offering courses mixing the two tracks and in the Green Party’s election manifesto (the party looks set to be included in the new federal government coalition). “People want an individual set of qualifications and competences that they will need in life,” he explained, and the debates about “more here or more there” in vocational or university education were “the discussions of yesterday”.
Although some Tories often seek to portray higher education expansion as a Labour policy, in reality the economic shifts away from industry towards services and a knowledge economy set in motion by Margaret Thatcher were also key drivers. Demand for higher education is shaped by wider government choices about labour markets and the structure of economies.
If Boris Johnson really believes in “skills, skills, skills” as the route to a high-wage economy, as he said in his recent Tory conference speech, and if there is to be an English system of lifelong loans allowing the kind of “permeability” between different kinds of education talked about in Germany, that might mean shifting to a different kind of higher education. But it would also seem likely to mean more, not less, of it.