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The Lord Ashcroft Building at Anglia Ruskin University: Expansion has diverted students to business and arts degrees (Anglia Ruskin University CC BY 4.0)

The helter-skelter expansion of higher education in the past 30 years is probably the single most profound change to British society in my lifetime. Around two-thirds of our current universities have opened in that period as the proportion of young people going to university has increased from 15 to nearly 50 per cent.

Like most big and rapid changes this transition from elite to mass higher education has its blessings and its drawbacks, and it is too soon to discern all the patterns. The switch from an industrial to a knowledge economy and the increase in administrative-analytical roles, and graduate-only occupations, is one obvious cause and consequence of the expansion. Another change is to the school system which has become more overtly focused on directing pupils into full-time academic study while other forms of technical and vocational education both school and post-school have struggled in the face of the university hegemony.

One, unintended, regional policy consequence of expansion has been a revival of several of the great ex-industrial northern cities which are now quasi-university towns.

Less quantifiable are the political and cultural changes. The last election might have been the first in which the “university seats” made a significant difference — now almost 20 per cent of seats have a substantial university-related vote. Also, the growth of the graduate population is closely linked to liberalisation trends. Leaving home and spending several years among people of different backgrounds tends to make you more comfortable with social change and less concerned with loyalty, tradition and group attachment, the values of small-c  conservatism.

This may be a benign outcome for individuals but it has surely contributed to the sharpness of the value divides in society (that I describe in my book The Road to Somewhere), revealed by support for Brexit on the one hand and graduate Britain’s fierce concern with equalities and identity politics on the other. Openness, individual autonomy and internationalism are key values of modern universities and are often viewed with suspicion by ordinary voters.

Indeed, the roots of the Brexit vote can be found in the alienation caused by the “two masses” — mass immigration and mass higher education. The latter in particular has contributed to the declining status, and often pay, of non-graduate employment.

For those who don’t go to university there is also a big psychological difference between 15-20 per cent of your schoolmates going and 50 per cent going. Significantly, this “shadow” cast by the great expansion is one of the few angles that David Willetts’s stimulating book on the modern university does not explore. It may be a case of love is blind. His answer, in any case, is to send 70 or even 80 per cent of the cohort to university, as is the case in Finland, Sweden and South Korea. 

To expand Britain’s version of higher education in that manner surely fails to take account of both the variety of aptitudes in the population and the variety of needs of the modern economy. It is true, of course, that all developed countries have hugely expanded post-school and university education in recent decades. But Britain’s is the most undifferentiated: it has simply expanded the form and ethos of elite higher education.
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Peter Smith
April 7th, 2018
12:04 PM
All so very true; I left school at 15 (just before my 16ht birthday) and have done what I call a 'self-directed apprenticeship'. I achieved Chartered Engineer status some years ago without a degree, but that might have been impossible if I had not moved to the USA (I lived there for 22 years) where most companies cared little about degrees after a few years of work, and far more about whether you can actually do the job. The problem I see is that it is assumed a degree is required for electrical engineering (a part of what I do). I started as a junior mechanic (Royal Navy) and have taken the opportunities life has afforded me. Perhaps that is not the path for many, but for myself it has been a lot of fun - roads less travelled perhaps. It is certainly time to re-evaluate just what the university system is actually supposed to be doing.

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