Should Tony Blair have encouraged 50% of young people to attend university?
As Prime Minister, Tony Blair envisioned a society where anything was possible. Upon his election in 1997, Blair controversially implemented liberal interventionism in the US-UK invasion of Iraq, negotiated the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, and attempted to reinvent Britain’s image through his ‘Cool Brittainia’ slogan.
Even today, 12 years after his resignation, Blair remains politically present, as his vision that 50% of young people would attend university has finally been realised. Whilst only 4% of young people attended university in the 1960s and 33% in 2000, the figures say 50.2% of people now attend.
I am a firm believer that everybody should have equal opportunity to gain access to the university experience if it is what they desire. However, whilst Blair’s policy encouraged all young people to see university as a possibility, the question must be asked: were all young people meant to go to university?
Having a degree used to make you stand-out from the crowd, yet in his attempt to encourage so many young people to attend university, Blair arguably undermined the worth of the degree. This can be attributed to the shift in a degree’s value, as they have metamorphosed from something of prestige to something almost conventional. As the graduate market becomes increasingly more saturated, the employability of a degree is surely weakened when Blair advocated for 50% of the population to go on to achieve one.
On the other hand, Blair too undermined the worth of non-degree pathways, such as the apprenticeship, as his vision that everybody should have a degree seemed to suggest the alternative was unfavourable in comparison to being educated via university. Schools funnel students into rigidly academic pathways, promoting Russell Group universities as the best option in light of the employment value of having a degree. In turn, those individuals who don’t see higher education as something they wish to pursue are forced to fight a system which is constantly channelling them towards it, and this can be partially blamed on Blair’s policy.
Due to the established presumption that higher education is the sole indicator of intellectual triumph, people attend university to conform to what has become normality. In making university the logical next step from school, Blair was blind to how university is not an experience that suits every young adult across the country.
What is more, it is not necessary for all young people to earn a degree. A study has shown that 28% of graduates have jobs which do not require a degree. This extensive overqualification highlights how directing every young person into a degree pathway may not be appropriate, and is certainly not necessary. There is much to be gained from more practical and vocational qualifications that lead young people into careers that are more suited to their skill set.
The financial implications of Blair’s hope for half of young people to go to university must be considered when exploring whether it is a positive or negative thing. Blair’s vision was based on an illusion that having a generation whereby the majority were degree holders would result in unparalleled economic growth within Britain. In reality, it was unrealistic to suggest the government would be able to financially fund the university journey for so many young people. Whilst many graduates will go on to contribute to the UK economy in gaining degrees that take them into affluent careers, it has transpired that ‘70 per cent of all graduates – the highest out of any country - fail to repay their loan in full after 30 years’. In failing to reach above the £26,575/year threshold that requires students to begin paying back their tuition fees, many students' fees will be wiped, and the UK taxpayer will be left to compensate for the government’s failure to recoup the money.
So, what is the alternative? There is a vast array of career opportunities that do not require a degree. Rather than funnelling young people into the university system alone, the government should be promoting the vast array of apprenticeships and other opportunities post-18 with equal force. This would inspire the younger generation to see themselves as capable of achieving success regardless of whether they have a university education or not.
50% of British young people having degrees does not necessarily create an educated society. What Blair’s policy should have focused on was a society whereby all school leavers are given the opportunity to enrich their minds in their chosen disciplines and nurture the skills required to take them into their career path, whether this will be provided by a university education or something else entirely.