James Forsyth

Have we hit peak graduate?

Have we hit peak graduate?
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The Tory party has turned sharply against the idea of ever larger numbers going to university. The reasons for this are both economic and political, I say in the Times today.

On the economic front, the taxpayer is bearing more of the cost of the expansion of higher education than expected — the government estimates that it will have to write off 53 per cent of the value of student loans issued last year — and there is a belief that the lack of funding for technical education is contributing to the UK’s skills and productivity problems.

Politically, the issue is that graduates tend not to vote Tory. At the last election, the Tories beat Labour by 44 per cent to 32 per cent. But among graduates (not students), the Tories trailed Labour by 14 points, polling a mere 29 per cent.

Ministers think that a shift away from higher education is happening anyway as the economics of paying £9,250 a year for a degree, compared with getting a technical qualification, are becoming clearer. But over the summer, the government will consult on minimum entry requirements for university. 

There is also interest in limiting the numbers on courses that offer poor value for money, both for students in terms of employment prospects, and the taxpayer because of loan repayments. This would fit with Gavin Williamson’s aim of clamping down on low-quality courses.

The government will have to respond to the Augar Review into post-18 education, which was commissioned by Theresa May, at this year’s spending review. I expect it will do so by moving resources from higher to further education.