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Sir Julian Brazier is a former Defence Minister, and was MP for Canterbury from 1987-2017.

Anna Firth’s recent article on ConHome, makes a compelling case for Conservatives to tackle the left-wing takeover of our universities. ‘The problem with (ignoring universities) is that it allows millions of young people to spend three or four formative years in hard left/liberal leaning institutions, risking a generation that will take years to switch away from Labour.

While supporting her excellent proposals on policies to appeal to the young – and to deploy them through better use of social media – we need to ask a more fundamental question. Why should Britain be almost the only country in the world where the vast majority of students are sent away from home to study mostly academic courses, acquiring in the process huge quantities of debt? Most students in most countries, including all our European neighbours, study from home, thus hugely reducing the cost.

For the academically able, it is a precious opportunity to be able to go away to study on a campus a range of subjects, which are profound but don’t necessarily have immediate application. Our best universities are among the best in the world. Their role extends beyond economic benefits to both the country and the individual – and there is ample evidence of the boost to earning power of their graduates.

But that does not extend down the scale. In November, the Education Select Committee published a report denouncing many universities as poor value and inflexible. While stressing the quality of our best institutions, the report highlighted that fact that almost half of recent graduates work in non-graduate roles. In truth, the current model, combining all the costs of residential study with courses which are not mostly vocationally orientated, is failing those with lower attainment levels.

What is the alternative? Partly, it is to boost further education, as Boris Johnson’s government is doing after a decade of neglect, but the heart of the solution lies in apprenticeships. I was recently privileged to visit the scheme which Marshall of Cambridge has been operating continuously for a century and to speak to some of the young men and women participating in it. They were keen, committed and loyal to the company which offers them a glittering career ahead – and they are earning, rather than gathering debt.

The youngest homeowner in their number was 19. All participants gain recognised vocational qualifications and those on the more challenging strands can top up to degree status. Interestingly their top strand needed good maths A Levels to participate, a higher standard than many universities require for what claim to be engineering courses.

In December 2018, the ONS decided to force the Treasury to account properly for the taxpayer’s exposure to student loan payments – so many of which will never be repaid.

It is not just about cost, however. Paying this hidden subsidy is making it possible for hundreds of thousands of young people who lack the academic skills to benefit from a purely academic degree to go away to a university, underperform and then drift on through life with few prospects and heavy debts.

Surely there is a strong case for capping student applications, not in arbitrary numerical terms, but on the basis of academic achievement at school? There should be foundation courses for those from disadvantaged backgrounds whose potential may exceed their performance. The funds released from such a cap could then be geared towards assisting the setting up of more apprenticeship schemes and vocational training.

Universities in the bottom half of the sector would howl. Many grossly overpay their vice chancellors and senior management team and those salaries – and their ability to service the debt some are irresponsibly taking on – are dependent on getting bums on seats, whatever the outcome for the youngsters concerned. In capping eligibility for loans by ability, government should make exceptions for universities which offer vocational courses with real job prospects.

Leaving aside the top end of the sector, where Britain continues to shine in every international league table, most universities should move to educating most students from home. Again, government can act in students’ best interests by restricting maintenance grants to more able students, thus discouraging less able ones from multiplying their debt by studying away from home.

Whenever people question the wisdom of sending half of all young people to university the sector responds with two sets of statistics – one showing that on average graduates do well. This reflects the success of the top half, but the Commons Education Committee report shows the flaw in the argument. Second the sector points to higher participation rates around the world – almost two thirds in South Korea is often quoted – but conceals the fact that most students study vocational subjects from home there.

Government is subsidising a system which is not in the interests of a large part, perhaps half, of the university intake. Instead it should act in their best interests and put the money towards options which offer them prospects of good employment, without huge debts. This is the politics of hope. Conservatives believe that people should acquire a stake in the economy – and more widely in society – as they progress.

There are implications for overseas students. If UK application numbers start to decline, as young people realise there are better options, universities will have a still greater incentive to attract overseas students to keep their revenues up. The government will need to revisit the lack of ‘quality controls’ on student applications. It would be ironic if the government’s sensible approach to curbing unskilled immigration were to be undermined by a growing influx of low attainment students flooding into struggling universities and staying on afterwards without any prospect of a well-paid job.

We also need to consider restrictions on university borrowing, as some universities, who have overpaid their senior staff and oversold their prospects, risk going under.

As Britain moves into the era of Artificial Intelligence, there may be lessons to be learnt from the Industrial Revolution. While Oxford and Cambridge graduates continued to dominate politics, Britain’s global expansion was fired by engineers from fringe colleges, the City of London with its Jewish stars excluded from university, and naval officers with their world-beating professional training. The university sector contributed remarkably little to our meteoric rise– apart from through the important roles of missionaries and doctors.

Today we have many excellent universities contributing a great deal to innovation, and some more lowly ones doing a wonderful job on vocational courses, but too many have become expensive purveyors of second rate academic nonsense, producing graduates with few prospects, heavy debt and an outlook which combines a culture of rights, with an absence of any hope of attainment. Small wonder that apprentices are far more likely to vote Conservative than students.

31 comments for: Julian Brazier: Universities in the bottom half of the sector would howl. But here are the reforms we should make to the system.

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