1. Nick Hillman is the former Special Adviser to David Willetts, the Minister for Universities and Science, and is currently the Director of the Higher Education Policy Institute.

‘Courses of higher education should be available for all those who are qualified by ability and attainment to pursue them and who wish to do so.’ Robbins Report, 1963

Targeting students

Almost twenty years ago, Tony Blair said he wanted half of all young people to benefit from higher education by 2010. Conservatives spluttered into their coffee, opposed the target and then promised, at the 2005 general election, to send fewer people to university as a way of funding the abolition of tuition fees.

There was, seemingly, a clear dividing line between the target-obsessed Labour Party and the laissez-faire Conservative Party.

In fact, whether knowingly or not, Blair was following where the Conservative Ken Baker had trod. In a speech at Lancaster University in 1989 while Secretary of State for Education and Science, Baker had said the participation of young people in higher education would double from 15 to 30 per cent early in the 21st Century. In 2015, Professor Peter Mandler, who was then the President of the Royal Historical Society, rightly described this speech as ‘not as famous as it should be’.

There is a strong case to be made that post-war higher education policy has been one long journey in the same direction. For example, in recent years all three of the main parties have promised ‘free’ higher education when far from power. But, in office, all three have placed more of the costs of higher education on the primary beneficiaries – graduates – through higher fees and loans. They have all backed higher student numbers when in office too.

There was one crucial difference between Ken Baker’s commitment and Tony Blair’s, however. The first succeeded rapidly; the second has yet to succeed. In the original case, the target was hit about ten years early. In contrast, we have still not (quite) hit Blair’s target seven years after we were meant to.

In some ways, this is surprising. Blair’s reforms to student funding – introducing fees in 1998 and then tripling them in 2006 – should have provided the fuel for the higher education sector to grow.

There are two reasons behind the relative failure of Blair’s target. First, it was easier to shift from 15 to 30 per cent participation than to move from 30 to 50 per cent on the traditional model of higher education.

When Ken Baker set his target, middle-class men predominated in higher education, so there was plenty of room for growth among middle-class women. New Labour’s target, in contrast, could not be achieved that way. By the time the target was set, female students significantly outnumbered males. Success could only realistically come by securing a higher entry rate from families with no prior experience of higher education – known as widening access.

Secondly, even after tripling fees to £3,000 in 2006, there was still a weighty taxpayer contribution towards the costs of educating each student. Much of the £3,000 was (long-needed) extra income for universities. So higher fees did little to reduce the taxpayer subsidy for educating each student. By the time Labour left office in 2010, during inauspicious economic circumstances, they were cutting student places and punishing universities recruiting more students than the policymakers thought they should.

Institutions making the most progress towards the 50 per cent target were, quite literally, being threatened with fines and a ‘No Entry’ sign was being placed in the way of young people wishing to better themselves.

At around the same time, supposedly ‘progressive’ politicians called for even more restrictions. I saw this myself when I stood in a university city (Cambridge) at the 2010 general election and repeatedly clashed with the anti-fees Liberal Democrat candidate who went on to win.

He was an academic at the University of Cambridge and wanted fewer people to enter higher education so that elite universities like his could be cost-free once more. At our various hustings, I would ask which students he thought should be turned away and, specifically, since far more women were by then entering higher education than men, which female applicants should be stopped from getting the higher-level skills they wanted. Answer came there none.

Student numbers

The Coalition that came to power after the 2010 election did not adopt the 50 pr cent target as a policy. But their decision to triple fees once again to £9,000 in 2012 gave George Osborne and David Willetts room for manoeuvre. In his autumn statement of 2013, the Chancellor announced that he would remove student number controls. This meant the total number of undergraduate places could increase and also that each university could compete for a larger share of the bigger cake.

Since then, the proportion of school leavers reaching higher education has continued to climb and new records keep being set. In August 2017, for example, Ucas announced ‘the highest entry rate for English 18-year-olds seen on A level results day.’

Removing student number controls was the child of the increase in fees, but it was more important than the parent. This is because the only effective way to expand access to higher education is to offer more places.

When the number of places is restricted, middle-class families will do everything they can to win the race; when they are unrestricted, it is no longer a zero-sum game. Places can be made available to everyone ‘qualified for them by ability and attainment’ (as the Robbins Report of 1963 wanted).

This is why removing student number controls is the policy I am proudest to have worked on in 20 years of public policy work. The success of the policy is the main reason why we should avoid any major changes to the student finance system, despite Jeremy Corbyn’s popular campaign to abolish fees.

Some tweaks may be necessary but a big shift away from the current funding system would inevitably lead to the re-imposition of student number controls, as well as less money being spent on each student’s education. That would be a double whammy. It is already occurring in Chile, where they are trying to get rid of their own high-fees system.

Nonetheless, letting each individual university recruit as many students as it wants has produced some challenges. A form of market has taken effect, and students have been shifting their choices upwards by aiming for more prestigious universities than they might otherwise have done, leaving other institutions with many empty places.

The Government have sought to ease the decision-making process for school leavers by ranking universities according to their teaching quality, although this is highly controversial because there is no consensus over how to do it.

The market effects matter more than if we were talking about supermarkets, say, partly because a university is often a town or city’s largest local employer and the most important agent for regional economic growth. Any policymaker who argues some universities should be allowed to go to the wall must be challenged on what this would mean for real people, real communities and the real economy.

The collapse of part-time higher education

We should also recognise one other important consequence of the higher fees regime that enabled the removal of student number controls, which is the impact on part-time students.

The tuition fee system is broadly the same for full-timers and part-timers, with the latter paying a pro rata fee. When the Coalition increased the full-time fee cap to £9,000, part-time fees went up in line but part-time students became newly entitled to tuition fee loans on a similar basis to full-time students as well, which was regarded as progressive and helpful.

At the time, Treasury civil servants were so worried about an explosion of part-time student numbers that they sought to limit them. Vince Cable – to his credit – ruled this out.

There are some important differences between part-time students and full-time students, however.

One is self-perception. Research suggests that if you ask a part-time student what they do, they will tell you they are a mother, an employee or a carer; ask a full-time student what they do and they will tell you they are a student. As a result, part-time students are more debt-averse. They also (typically) have less access to the financial support on offer because, for example, they may already have some higher education under their belt, which can limit entitlement.

There have been problems in the supply of places too. As the National Union of Students have rightly pointed out, £9,000 fees combined with no number controls incentivised universities to focus on expanding full-time provision. So the number of part-time students imploded rather than exploded, more than halving in the past few years. As a result of this decline, the total number of students in higher education in 2015/16 remained lower than it had been in 2005/06.

Moreover, according to the OECD’s 2017 Education at a Glance publication, the UK is also behind the OECD average for ‘First-time tertiary graduation rates for national students younger than 30’ and far behind countries like Turkey, Slovenia and Denmark. So there is plenty of room for further growth.


Where do apprenticeships come in? Politicians of all stripes have promised a big expansion of apprenticeships, which combine work and education. Despite generally eschewing higher education targets, the current Government have pledged ‘to create three million apprenticeships for young people by 2020’.

This goal is designed to tackle various long-standing problems in our education system, such as the questionable value of many vocational qualifications, the high number of young people not in education, employment or training, and the shortage of certain skills. As a policy, it has the potential to be popular. On the doorstep in Cambridge, I found the need for more apprenticeships was spontaneously and regularly raised by voters.

One way to boost apprenticeships is to ensure the vocational route does not peter out and that it incorporates a ladder of opportunity, so that it provides a proper alternative to a traditional university experience. The Government has made particular noise about increasing the number of degree-level apprenticeships, which are believed to have very positive outcomes – for example, in terms of wages.

A headline in the Daily Telegraph in March 2017 screamed, ‘Number of degree apprenticeships due to increase 650 percent, new report suggests’. This is a huge increase and very welcome, but it is from a tiny base; in 2015/16, only 740 apprenticeship starts were at Level 6 (equivalent to a Bachelor’s degree) and a mere 30 were at Level 7 (equivalent to a Master’s degree).

So there is an enormous distance to travel before apprenticeships become a true alternative to mainstream higher education. Indeed, it seems likely that the highest-level apprenticeships will only ever make up a tiny proportion of the three million total that the Government is aiming for.

Personally, I doubt apprenticeships will fulfil the enormous potential that people have vested in them, despite the fact that you can emerge debt-free from a degree-level apprenticeship and despite the new apprenticeship levy imposed on larger employers that will fund more places.

This is partly for negative reasons: for example, the structure of the British economy is different to the economies of some of our key competitors that rely on apprenticeships to a greater degree (such as Germany), so the demand from employers for the highest-level apprenticeships may simply not be there in sufficient quantities.

It is also partly for positive reasons: for example, there are sound reasons behind the lure of a traditional residential degree programme with its full-on student experience and provision of transferable skills.

It is also worth remembering that the defining feature of a good apprenticeship – proximity to an employer and the specialised higher-level knowledge this provides – has long been available via the regular degree route, through sandwich courses, employer-sponsored degrees, and higher education qualifications accredited by professional bodies.

Whenever people complain about the pull of universities and the lack of prestige for vocational routes, I am reminded of when I was looking around a brand new primary school. In her welcoming remarks, the headteacher said: ‘If your child comes here, they will go to a Russell Group university.’ The school had no track record, having only existed for a few months and having just 60 pupils aged four and five.

I bristled at her words at the time. But, in exalting traditional forms of higher education, she was simply following the logic of recent reforms by the Department for Education, the demands of local parents, and the history of our education system. Her objective will only be the wrong one when middle-class and aspiring voters regard apprenticeships as a true alternative to university for their children, and not just other people’s children.

It is unlikely this will happen any time soon. According to Professor Simon Marginson, Director of the Centre for Global Higher Education, who has studied numerous university systems around the developed world, ‘There is no ultimate limit to aspirations for social betterment through higher education – it is not subject to economic scarcity’. The mothers of young UK children tend to agree. According to one detailed study, ‘No less than 97 per cent of them want their children to go on to university, even though most did not have a higher education themselves’.

The return of university targets

So we should recognise that higher education will continue growing and prepare for it.

There is, in truth, a longer tradition of politicians setting and accepting targets for higher education participation in the UK than I suggested at the start. For example, as well as Baker and Blair, there was the immediate acceptance by Alec Douglas-Home’s Government of the Robbins Report’s recommendation that the total number of full-time students should triple from around 200,000 in the early 1960s to 600,000 in the early 1980s.

The education white paper produced by Margaret Thatcher in 1972, when she was the Secretary of State for Education and Science in Edward Heath’s Government, set a target for 1981 of 200,000 young higher education entrants, equivalent to an increase of over 50 per cent in the young participation rate: ‘This would represent about 22 per cent of the age group then aged 18: compared with 7 per cent in 1961 and 15 per cent in 1971.’

The projections in Thatcher’s white paper suffered as a result of economic problems and from the reluctance of policymakers to introduce a more affordable student finance system. But this should not stop us from planning ahead today. In the context of Brexit, which may mean a reduction in the supply of highly-skilled migrants, and rising life expectancy, which means humans could be living around 15 minutes longer on average every hour, we should be planning ahead to increase the time spent in education.

A target of around 70 per cent participation by 2035 should not be unachievable. That may sound ambitious, but it is a comparable trajectory to in the past – and as South Korea, Russia and Canada have all achieved participation way ahead of ours, it can surely be done.

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