Published:

Lord Willetts is President of the Resolution Foundation. He is a former Minister for Universities and Science, and His book A University Education is published by Oxford University Press.

The forthcoming White Paper is the crucial opportunity to shape a coherent agenda for levelling up – if Michael Gove, Neil O’Brien and Andy Haldane can’t crack it, then nobody can.

But even before it is published some specific policies are being launched which help to flesh out the idea. The Education Department has just made a really important shift in policy to boosting access to higher education. Its significance for levelling up may not have been fully appreciated. It is a brave challenge to the conventional wisdom that too many people go to university.

Many Conservatives do not approve of Tony Blair’s target for 50 per cent of people under 30 going to higher education. I myself don’t like targets, and it did not apply during my time as Universities Minister. But even without any such target, more and more young people are going to university. For young women, the participation rate has now reached 61 per cent – compared with 47 per cent for young men.

The guilty secret for Conservatives is that in many prosperous Tory constituencies the participation rate is now well over 60 per cent. If there is a social and economic problem of too many people going to university it is most acute in places like Kensington, Guildford, Winchester, Hertfordshire, Buckinghamshire and the affluent suburbs of Sheffield and Manchester – even though these areas don’t seem to be suffering too much as a result.

But meanwhile, there is one group above all who have remained stubbornly resistant to the blandishments of higher education – white working class boys.

The Government has just appointed a new Director for Fair Access and Participation at the Office for Students Nadhim Zahawi and Michelle Donelan have followed up with a robust statement about what his priority should be:

‘White British young males who received free school meals are amongst the least likely to enter higher education, with just 12.6 per cent progressing to higher education by age 19 by 2019/20. …We would like to see the OfS rewrite the national targets to better align with this new focus, and renegotiate A&P (Access and Participation) plans with providers to meet these new priorities…”

It is a welcome recognition that higher education can and should boost social mobility. Perhaps the mood in Government is beginning to shift away from just complaining that too many people go.

This initiative opens up the crucial question of how this improved access is to be achieved. If we don’t want to see more people in total going to higher education, then universities will have to cut back on places for other groups. That would means that those traditional Tory areas with high rates of participation are going to have to cut back so as to make more room for students from Red Wall seats with much lower participation.

But somehow I suspect that the Government is not going to embark on such a civil war within the new Conservative electoral Coalition. Instead, the aim will be for this group of white young British males to catch up with higher participation groups. That means more places at university. This has always been the logic of higher education expansion ever since Robbins.

There may be an attempt to say that these young men should do different subjects. We certainly do need to ensure there are good opportunities for technical higher education. But it would be a pity if we restrict the arts and humanities to the middle classes at prestigious universitiesm and assume that young working class men should all be doing technical qualifications.

Nadine Dorries criticises the BBC for being too middle class – she would not find it acceptable if it replied that working class people should train to be engineers and plumbers, rather than journalists and broadcasters: it is hard to see how such an approach could be a basis for our higher education policy either.

Moreover, the British economy is so inter-connected that we need people with a wide range of skills. So, for example, one of the biggest barriers holding up on the Government’s ambitious investment in infrastructure is the need to conduct archaeological surveys of historic sites which are briefly revealed before they are built over. But there is a shortage of archaeologists. It would be wrong to miss out on this rare opportunity to learn more about our history so we need urgently to train a new group of development archaeologists.

The Government’s pressure to boost the shockingly low rates of university participation by young working class men is going to push up total demand for university places. Furthermore, there was a surge in the birth rate during the first decade of the Millennium which is now pushing up demand for higher education. And then there is the surging demand from overseas students – higher education is one of our best export industries, worth £30 billion a year.

Add all this together, and UCAS are expecting a million applications a year for places in British universities by 2025. Instead of pretending there is going to be a fall in student numbers, we need instead to be planning for a substantial increase.

That then opens up another issue: where are all these extra students to go? One possibility is that our current universities grow even bigger. But I’m not sure students want massive universities, and anyway there are physical constraints on their growth in some of our cities.

Instead this era of expansion is an opportunity to create new universities in the places that don’t have them – the cold spots. It is also a fantastic opportunity for innovation with new providers coming in offering a different prospectus.

That is what is happening with the New Model Institute for Technology and Engineering at Hereford, which is on its way to becoming a university. Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge is developing a new campus at Peterborough which is planned to become a university. A Further Education College, such as the excellent one in Hartlepool, might expand and aim for university status.

Blackpool resisted having a university so it went to Lancaster instead: now there is an opportunity for them to correct that mistake. Wigan, Wakefield, Grimsby, Yeovil, Doncaster, and Thanet are all places which might aspire to have their own university. Some of these would be in the Red Wall. The Government could launch a competition to enable places to bid for a new higher education institution perhaps partly funded by local business partners needing to recruit more graduates.

The surge in demand for higher education is a fantastic opportunity to deliver levelling up. The Government should seize it.