In 1999, Tony Blair made a promise. He made a promise to deliver on education, setting a target of 50 per cent of young adults going into higher education in the next century. By 2019, only twenty years after setting out to achieve such huge social change, this target was more than met, writes Charlotte Harries.
But now what? With more people than ever before attending university, does the value of the degree really hold up?
Both my parents were the first people in their families to achieve a degree. For their parents, this was momentous. Fast forward 35 years and we now have a running joke with my Grandmother that she will need to get an extension for all the pictures of her grandchildren on graduation day. Out of her six grandchildren, all six have completed at least one degree. Four of us have gone on to achieve additional postgraduate qualifications. But was that through want or was that through sheer necessity?
In the academic year of 2000/2001, there were 1,948,135 students enrolled in higher education. By 2019/2020, there were 2,532,385. The normalisation of attending university has meant it is often presented as the only pathway for those completing FE, even though this pathway does not suit all students. Worse still, the devaluation of degrees means that many students enter a hostile job market with thousands of others who have the same qualification as them. But universities continue to sell degrees as if they are the golden ticket for success without preparing students for the reality that a degree alone does not entitle you to a job. More and more students have begun to complete postgraduate studieswith MA’s presented as the pinnacle of educational currency in an increasingly oversubscribed system.
University is often argued as more than a degree. It is where you meet your friends and your future professional network. But for those students who have been locked inside for the last fifteen months whilst completing Zoom-university, unable to interact with coursemates, academics or the resources they are paying for, it’s difficult to offset questions of if degrees are worth it.
Whilst more people are attending university than ever before, we are still facing the highest proportion of skills shortages in Europe. Only last month, there were threats that part of the UK economy could not reopen due to staff shortages. And yet, between October to December 2020, 744,000 of 18–24-year-olds were not in education, employment, or training. The proliferation of university courses has not resulted in the tangible skills needed to resolve our skills shortage. We need to resolve the disconnect that exists between the pathways we offer, and the skills society needs.
The new Labour movement failed to account for the oversaturation of the graduate job market. Or if they did, they did not care. For young graduates, it is disheartening to complete their studies and find that their degree has very little intrinsic value. Interestingly, Tony Blair’s son has been a vocal critic of herding students into university and is instead calling for an apprenticeship revolution. In fact, the Bristol and Yale graduate is now profiting off the oversaturation of the graduate market. His apprenticeship business, Multiverse, is now valued at a cool £147 million.
Education, education, education -Like many things-proved easier to deliver as a soundbite than in practice. In the term of the last Senedd, 26,000 children in Wales still left primary school unable to read. For those fortunate enough to become graduates, it’s left a generation of overqualified individuals with a crisis of underemployment and a market lacking the skills it needs.
Charlotte Harries is a Welsh Conservative Member and Senior Parliamentary Staffer.