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UK ditches Blair's 50% university graduate plan. Maybe now we can get the skilled elite we'll need after Covid

Damian Wilson
Damian Wilson
is a UK journalist, ex-Fleet Street editor, financial industry consultant and political communications special advisor in the UK and EU.
is a UK journalist, ex-Fleet Street editor, financial industry consultant and political communications special advisor in the UK and EU.
UK ditches Blair's 50% university graduate plan. Maybe now we can get the skilled elite we'll need after Covid
After more than 20 years of shoehorning young adults into time-wasting and inappropriate degree courses, the 50% target has been binned and Tony Blair’s dream of colleges churning out liberal Labour voters is finally dead.

The decision taken by the UK government to ditch the target of getting 50 percent of young adults into higher education, a relic of the Blair years, is now consigned to that overflowing dustbin of history.

Though not officially the policy of any government since the 1990s, the idea had become a yardstick, and even this year, a huge 40 percent of 18-year-olds have applied to go to university.

The belief that three years studying Spanish and art history will prepare these young folk for life in the rough and tumble of a post-coronavirus work environment is downright dumb.

It doesn’t prepare them for anything. It simply delays, in many cases, the maturity that is needed to take on board the opinions of those they disagree with. It hampers the growth of the financial nous required to become independent from the Bank of Mum and Dad, and it instills the completely false perception that a university degree equals an instantly high-paying job on the outside.

Well, tell that to the 34 percent of university graduates working in non-graduate jobs. 

The 50 percent target was more than an educational goal from that snake-oil salesman of a prime minister, Tony Blair.

It was really a cynical attempt at social engineering, encouraging more left-leaning universities to increase their output so that, graduating year after graduating year, more finely tuned Labour-loving butterflies would emerge from their cocoons, ever thankful to Blair for the opportunity they had been given at further education.

But it didn’t quite work like that.

Because finding all those cinema studies and American politics graduates jobs was not what the economy was built for. Sure, we have a huge services sector, but there’s also manufacturing and agriculture, which need people who can actually DO things, not simply talk about them for hours on end over a pint in the student bar.

Vocational education and apprenticeships are often what produce the doers in this world. You want a plug socket installed? Who would you rather turn up: a trained electrician, or someone with a PhD in ceramics?

But for some reason, there is an imbalance in the way that society looks at these two people. Often, years of education earn kudos while years of training earn peanuts. It could all be attributed to Britain’s notorious class system but, in fact, it works like this in other countries as well.

In Italy, those with a degree that took only three years to earn are awarded the honorific of ‘Dottore’, regardless of the area of study or even their field of employment. You could be an arts graduate working in a shoe factory; never mind, somehow you are considered ‘better’.

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In the USA there are the Ivy League colleges, each with its own special way of looking down its nose at outsiders. I know business school graduates with Harvard MBAs who struggle to eat a meal with a knife and fork.

Sure, they have a degree, but I would never give them a job.

Then there are other industrious, energetic, entrepreneurial people out there who may never have finished sixth form, but they learn as they go along. Some strike gold right away, while others might see businesses fail, ideas flop and bankruptcy beckon – but they back their own judgement, learn from their mistakes and get on with the next plan.

In the brave new world of business, which is going to be a far leaner, far meaner animal than it was this time last year, there will be no room for passengers. No space for people with an alphabet of letters after their name but not a single clue about business strategy or finance in this tough new era.

Success will be difficult, and it will take street smarts and opportunistic cunning to make it.

So while the 40 percent of 18-year-olds looking to start at a UK university in September might be excited about their brave new adventure in education, many will struggle to find work when they finish their degree in three years’ time.

Meanwhile, those who choose to dive into the deep end of what, we are forewarned, will be a recession like no other, could find themselves well-placed to build a new economy fit for a nation with entirely new demands to those of six months ago.

I know which position I’d choose, no matter how socially undesirable those over-educated liberals may consider me to be. The reality is that the 60 percent of young adults who have chosen not to take a university place this year are far more likely to be in a position of finding a worthwhile job in the three years that the remaining 40 percent will spend skipping lectures and online tutorials while building up a mountain of debt.

It’s the college undergraduates we should be pitying as the ‘left behinds’, not those young people getting down and dirty with a head start at the university of life.

That’s not how the liberal academic elite will see this, of course. They will be livid that the narrative has changed, that this government no longer considers university as the be all and end all.

That anger is the cherry on top of this common-sense decision. It’s a pity it wasn’t made sooner.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.