James Forsyth

Target for half of kids to go to university dropped

Target for half of kids to go to university dropped
Education Secretary Gavin Williamson, Picture credit: Getty
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In a sign of how worried the government is about youth unemployment, it will – quiet literally – pay firms to hire 16 to 24 year olds. But, as I say in the magazine this week, these government-funded jobs can only be a short-term fix. Any medium-term solution is going to require fixing post-16 education.

The expansion of higher education has not worked out as intended; the 50 per cent target for pupils going to university has been hit, but too many students are doing courses that don’t represent value for money. Research from the Institute for Fiscal Studies shows that men graduating from 23 universities and women from nine earn less after ten years than the average non-graduate. This is emblematic of a broader problem. As Gavin Williamson, the Education Secretary, pointed out in a speech today, a third of British graduates are in non-graduate jobs. The government subsidises this failing system: the IFS estimates that only 17 per cent of students will pay back their student loans in full.

Williamson’s response to this problem is to drop the 50 per cent target and focus on further education instead. This autumn, he will publish a white paper on how to set up a German-style system of technical education. Employers will have a direct input into the curriculum, ensuring these qualifications really do set people up for work. In addition, the government will stop funding thousands of low-quality qualifications.

Now, ministers have been trying to bring German-style technical education to Britain for almost as long as they have been trying to reform Whitehall, and with about as much success. There is reason to think this time might be different, however. The government has asked to be judged on its success in ‘levelling up’ Britain, and any attempt to do that which doesn’t fix technical education is doomed to failure.