In 15 years Britain has acquired a mass university system. But this has not made us more equalby Alison Wolf / July 20, 2002 / Leave a comment
Published in July 2002 issue of Prospect Magazine
In 15 years Britain has acquired a full-blown system of mass higher education. There are now twice as many 25 year olds with degrees as there were 18 year olds with A Levels in 1965. Over 40 per cent of 18 year olds are set to enter higher education and the government’s target is for 50 per cent to do so by 2010.
This should make many people happy. British education has for years been haunted by stories about our backwardness. But in higher education we have now closed the gap with Japan in enrolment and graduation rates; we have higher proportions enrolling than Germany or France, higher proportions graduating than Italy or Sweden. The US still sends proportionately more to college than we do, but we are about where they stood in the early 1980s in terms of enrolments, and are neck and neck on graduation rates.
However, British higher education starts the 21st century in a despondent mood. In May, the warden of New College, Oxford, Alan Ryan, leaving for a year’s sabbatical at Stanford University, argued that “no rational person would work in the British higher education system.” Salford, one of the country’s oldest technical universities, became the latest in a long line to scale down their maths and science provision, in an attempt to close a large financial deficit. And Imperial College’s rector, Richard Sykes, government adviser and former chairman of GlaxoSmith Kline, pleaded with ministers in the Financial Times to “do something radical” about a system in trouble.
Over ?8 billion a year of taxpayers’ money is now channelled into higher education. We must surely be getting something from our move to a mass system, whether it is faster economic growth, a fairer society or more cultured citizens. But we urgently need to clarify what it is that we are getting-and what, if things are going wrong, can be done about them?
The most important fact about university education is easy to spot. University pays-or, to be more specific, it pays the individual. On average, all over the world, university graduates are the ones who succeed, in terms of both income and employment. The average earnings gap between those with some higher education and those who never finished upper secondary school ranges from over half as much again in egalitarian Scandinavia to around double for the OECD as a whole, and to more than double in Britain and the US. Moreover, throughout the world, a growing proportion of desirable jobs are now graduate only. We needed more graduates “to avoid losing competitive advantage, “as the CBI says; we now have the graduates, so everything is set fair.