Tony Blair’s election manifesto set the target that 50% of all young people, under the age of 30, should be in higher education by 2010. Undoubtedly ambitious, this aim was not achieved.

 

However, in recent years we have come extremely close to reaching this target. The Department’s for Business Innovation and Skill provisional Higher Education Initial Participation Rate, for 17 -30 year olds, measures 49% for the 2011- 12 academic year. The rate of participation in higher education has expanded rapidly in the last decade, with total student numbers rising from just under 2 million in 2000– 2001 to around 2.5 million by 2010– 2011. In the 1960’s just 5% went to university – the change is astounding.

 

As we near the 50% benchmark set by Tony Blair, it is apt to reflect on whether this is a positive development. This is especially pertinent set against the rise of tuition fees and graduate unemployment. Furthermore, in 2010 The Association of Graduate Recruiters asserted that an ‘obsession’ with higher education had devalued degrees, with a boom in unchallenging courses at below average institutions.

 

So, what is the worth of going to university? Does its value justify ambitious targets for participation?

 

Arguments against higher participation in higher education ignore its wide reaching benefits. For individuals it creates expertise in subjects and develops transferrable skills, such as the ability to research and communicate well.

 

The environment of higher education fosters an environment of enquiry, debate and exploration; undoubtedly encouraging students to think more deeply about current issues.

 

Graduates bring attitudes and behaviours that are beneficial to society as a whole; tending towards tolerance with an awareness of international, social and environmental issues.

 

The assertion of the lack of graduate jobs must be seen through the lens of our current economic situation, having recently suffered from a deep recession, jobs are scarce in general. The lack of labour market demand  is the primary cause of the current levels of high youth unemployment. However, the numbers of jobs is not fixed and as the economy recovers more jobs will be created.

 

The UK Commission for Jobs and Skills ‘Ambition 2020’ report (2009) argues that to create a sustainable recovery we must commit to investing in the skills of our people, this certainly means more people in higher education.

 

The statistics, commonly reported in the press, by the Higher Education Statistics Agency only focus on graduate employment 6 months after university students leave education. This is by no means an accurate reflection of the medium to long-term career prospects. In fact, the research conducted by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills into the ‘graduate premium’ (2013) carries good news for graduates. Graduates earn more on average than non-graduates, alongside the riskiness of their earnings being lower.

 

Taking into account the tuition fees, student loans and taxation on earnings over a lifetime, as a man you’ll have earned an additional 28% more on average compared with someone with a similar background who didn’t go to university.

 

The merits of higher education are clear. But more than pursuing quotas, the government should satisfy itself that all those  who are willing and prepared to go to higher education should be able to. This is especially relevant in the current environment of high tuition fees.

 

Likewise, those who would rather pursue a different career path should have other options. There is not enough focus on the other 50%. Those who choose not to go into higher education should have access to a variety of apprenticeships and work streams. Not going to university should not condemn you to a low paid job.

 

Although there is certainly merit in aiming for higher participation rates in higher education, this certainly should not be done at the expense of investing in other opportunities for young people.

 

Those who argue that the 50% of young people is ‘too many’ seem to assume that there are a finite number of people with the capacity to learn. Encouraging education, and therefore people’s capacity for improvement, is much more productive both on an individual level and for the wider economy.