Lord Flight is Chairman of Flight & Partners Recovery Fund, and is a former Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury.
I suggest there are really only two major areas of intergeneration issues to be addressed: the high price of housing and the cost of university education. Otherwise, young people today have a much higher standard of living than did I and my contemporaries 40 or 50 years ago. Young people eat out, often several times a week – my fiancée and I could only afford to eat out once a month at most. Men and women have many more clothes and buy more clothes – I was lucky if I could afford one suit a year. The young people I know, including my own children, take several holidays a year. We were lucky if we went abroad once. Young people are also better paid, both absolutely and relatively, and get £250 per week unemployment pay.
Let us turn now to the two problem areas of property and university education.
The first is simple – to address the housing problem we need to build many more houses per annum over the next decade. Government schemes, if anything, have worsened the problem. We need to make planning permissions easier to achieve, but also to motivate house builders to get on and build houses and not sit on land banks. This might be achieved by an escalating tax on land banks not developed within a given period of obtaining planning permission. I am extremely leery of Government itself getting into the house building industry, but they could help finance – to the extent needed – private sector house builders and, particularly, local private sector house builders. It will take a while to correct the supply/demand imbalance, allowing for both property prices to ease with enhanced supply and higher pay to improve the demand side of affordability. We do not want a crash in the housing market which would hit severely younger people who have been recent buyers.
On education, I believe the Blair Government made a great mistake in copying the US model of 50 per cent going to university, rather than that of Germany and Switzerland. That more than 50 per cent of student loans are not expected to be repaid because the borrowers will not earn sufficient to qualify for repayment is a crude measure that more than 50 per cent of university places do not turn out graduates able to qualify for a better than average paid job. A poorly taught degree in the liberal arts, from one of the new universities which will admit students with poor ‘A’ level grades, in practice only benefits those working for the new universities, who are frequently well-paid.
Surely the more sensible arrangement is the Swiss/German model, where around 20 per cent go to academic universities, “polishing” the brain power the country needs, but everyone else acquires their qualifications “on the job”, via what we used to call Sandwich Schemes, being paid while acquiring qualifications. This is not just for manual skills but for professional skills – lawyers, bankers, et cetera. This structure solves the affordability and university finance issues. As 80 per cent are getting their qualifications while working and financed by their employers, with only 20 per cent going to university, there is greater scope to provide some funding for those attending university.
Surely several areas – for example, nursing – are also better taught on a Sandwich Scheme basis where students can apply what they are learning on a practical basis. To move to the Swiss/German system would clearly require the co-operation of employers. The new university premises which have been constructed could in the main be used for the part-time teaching involved in Sandwich Scheme training. It is worth noting that Switzerland has the best educated, best qualified population in the world. There are businesses which measure the subsequent income generation of students from different universities in both the US and the UK. While clearly materialistic, this gives a realistic “read” on which universities are succeeding and which are not justifying their keep.