University challenge, round 2

Despite now paying big fees, students know it makes sense to study, and most do. The remainder need even more expansion—which can also save left-behind towns

June 09, 2021
Photo: eogphotos / Alamy Stock Photo
Photo: eogphotos / Alamy Stock Photo

I am a great believer in admitting your mistakes in government. Looking back, a particularly big one was the 50 per cent target for young people progressing to university, set by Tony Blair in 1999. This caused intense controversy, still ongoing, with cries about “dumbing down” universities and undervaluing non-university options.

I now admit that the target was wrong. We should have set it higher.

For 50 per cent was achieved last year and we are now heading north—although few realise it—despite the fact that five years after the target was set, tuition fees of £3,000 a year were introduced, so that students actually had to bear part of the cost. Six years later, under the Cameron/Clegg coalition in 2010, the £3,000 was trebled to £9,000, yet the increase in numbers wanting to go on to university only accelerated.

Young people have been queuing up to get into uni, despite the fees, because it’s so obviously the right thing to do for the increasing proportion of teenagers who make the grade. Unless they get some exceptionally good apprenticeship or direct job offer, higher education will hugely boost their employability—and their life chances and satisfaction more broadly—almost irrespective of the course, so they would be stupid not to participate. And not just in England but across the developed world, where the proportion of under-25s going on to higher education now averages 49 per cent.

There is no sign of the increase halting, even after a miserable year of Covid lockdowns, except where governments literally ban young people from university campuses or Zooms by imposing caps on student numbers. But why should they do that if we want to be prosperous, modern and fulfilled societies? Particularly in England where students now bear most of the costs of a university course, and in some cases—for arts and social science subjects—may even be paying back more even than the cost of their course in the first place.

Universities drive growth not just at national level but equally in the localities and regions where they are situated. I was looking this week at a striking instance—Falmouth University on the south Cornish coast—because I remember taking the decision to create that seat of advanced learning when in government nearly 20 years ago. The question was whether Falmouth College of Art should become a fully-fledged university able to offer a wider range of degree courses. I was told—indeed lectured—by an eminent Education Department official that this was a very bad idea because Falmouth was far too remote and its arts specialisms far too, well, arty, to support a successful university. “It will be a white elephant, minister,” he intoned.

Instead, it took off. Since becoming a university in 2005, Falmouth has tripled its student numbers to over 6,000, supporting over 2,000 jobs in depressed Cornwall and is now a motor of the county economy with an international reputation in the creative arts. Falmouth uni boasts a 96 per cent employment rate and four times the number of self-employed graduates than the UK average—graduates who often remain in the beautiful county after finishing their degrees.

The “Falmouth model” should be extended across the UK, with appropriate specialisms, in larger towns which currently lack higher education institutions and their vital economic and social benefits. This is particularly important to “levelling-up” in the “red wall,” to mix new political metaphors. Universities are hubs of local development, driving job and business creation and vital to town centre regeneration. Gloucestershire University has just bought the closed-down Debenhams store in Gloucester city centre as its new campus, and similar opportunities are being snapped up by universities nationwide.

Research by the Civic University Network shows that 59 per cent of voters nationally want universities to play a more active local role, rating their contribution more highly than, for example, local government.

Sadly, the same research suggests such impacts rarely extend beyond the city or town where the university is based. Which suggests the need for a new university target. Forty-six towns in England with a population of over 80,000 still, in 2021, have no university of their own. Swindon is the largest, with a population of 182,000; many others cut a swathe across the north: Hartlepool, Doncaster and Blackpool. They should get their own universities as part of a new target of 70 per cent going on to higher education.

This is back to the future, of course. A century ago, barely half of adults went on to secondary education and massive controversy reigned about increasing this proportion significantly. Until it happened after the Second World War.

Oh, and when people start sounding off about how inappropriate universities are for more of the layabout “youf” of today, ask them innocently: is it your children who you think should be banned from going on to uni? That usually silences them.