Published:

Dean Machin is Head of Public Policy at the University of Portsmouth. He is a former philosopher who has advised David Willetts and written a report on data-sharing for the Social Mobility Commission.

It is the increasingly settled wisdom that universities are failing to deliver yet they are more popular than ever. Why?

Putting aside conspiracy theories about universitiesingenious ways to inveigle young people into their clammy embrace, part of the explanation must be that, university apart, the options for school-leavers are poor. But we won’t change what school-leavers aspire to without understanding why university is so attractive, particularly to disadvantaged young people.

The Apprenticeship Levy, which unintentionally led to a decline in intermediate and advanced apprenticeships at the same time as a significance increase in higher apprenticeships, highlights how policy can misfire when policymakers do not understand people’s motivations. A party that has always seen itself as working with the grain of human nature should remember this.

It’s about taking control of your future, not just productivity

The Centre for Policy Studies recently proposed a package of measures to incentivise the kind of training and education that will make both individuals and the country richer in the long run. The pre-supposed purpose of university is to improve productivity. Courses that do not this should be taken at students’ “own risk. Whether this is the ‘right’ purpose of a mass university system is beside the point: if reforms based on this premise jar with why people choose university, perverse outcomes will follow and many young people will be left frustrated and angry.

As any university recruiter will tell you, there are a whole raft of often idiosyncratic reasons why anyone chooses university or one university over another. But some generalisations are possible.

First, university is a fairly permanent aspiration. In 2010 the Millennium Cohort Study found that 97 per cent of mothers of seven year olds wanted their children to go to university. A more recent survey found that 65 per cent of parents with children under 10, and 70 per cent of parents with children 1115, want their children to go to university.

Second, through UCAS there is a well-designed and relatively efficient national system to turn young people’s occasionally vague aspirations to university into effective applications. There should almost certainly be some similar system for further education and apprenticeships.

Third, school leavers have few good alternatives to university but – and this is the central point – for disadvantaged young people, university is by a long way their best bet. The state pays upfront for their education and offers (means-tested) living-costs – weighted to enable them to move to another town or city. There is no comparable level of support for any other option.

If you do not live in a place that offers many economic opportunities, and if you have few financial resources and little social capital (so no friendly aunt in Islington to provide lodging while you find your way in the media), university is your best bet to reduce the degree to which your background determines your future.

Francis the Train Guy recently found social media fame because of his infectious passion for trainspotting. When interviewed, he cited university as giving him the confidence to be open about what is generally viewed as a tedious pass-time. He contrasted the liberating effect of university with the pressure to conform at school and sixth form.

For Francis, it was trainspotting and for some others it will be their sexuality. For most, though, it will be an ambition to be something that perhaps their parents find incomprehensible, or that no-one in their background has ever seen as feasibly achievable. In his speech ‘What is education for?Michael Gove put the general point rather well. Education has an emancipatory, liberating, value. … I believe education allows individuals to become authors of their own life story. Education helps you take control of your own life.

Is emancipation the state’s business?

Life is not sustained by productivity increases alone and having greater control over your own life is something citizens can demand of their politicians. Public funding for this is also uniquely valuable for disadvantaged young people – those with little social and financial capital behind them. More advantaged young people might not need state support to see the world as full of opportunities, to develop self-confidence, or to make their aspirations effective. Disadvantaged young people almost certainly will. Narrowing university funding only to areas that make people more productive would level down, not up.

So what?

While this argument reinforces Government wisdom to provide alternatives to university – different people will become authors of their own story in different ways – it also highlights the need for policymakers to understand the varied reasons that draw people to university. Without this, well-intentioned reforms might have perverse consequences and be resented. Attempts to push people on to technical courses at local further education colleges, for example, who might otherwise leave home for university (possibly to study the creative arts!) could end up being as popular as Jeremy Corbyn.

When describing the liberating benefits of university, the Train Guy made no mention of the subject he studies (engineering if you are interested). The benefits of university are not reducible to the economic returns of studying a particular subject. If they were it would be very difficult to explain the 2021 HEPI Survey finding that while 25 per cent of those surveyed would have changed course or university, only eight-nine per cent wished they had not gone at all.

Those who think is this all is nonsense and that investment in universities must succeed or fall on the basis of productivity increases should note one thing. To implement their view not only will policy have to change but so will people. Young people must start to want different things. It has always been a standard critique of left-wing parties that their policies would work if only the people were different.

Finally, and more practically, the foregoing identifies a test for the Government’s post-18 education reforms: do reforms give disadvantaged young people those with little social and financial capital a greater chance to be “authors of their own life story” or just the chance to be more productive? Answering this question will offer a very good guide to which reforms will work and which will not.