Today’s headlines that universities are struggling to fill spaces on courses due to a fall in applications are good news for prospective students.
But if we want to protect the best interests of young people in the longer term, we need a sustained fall in university applications rooted in a shift in attitudes towards higher education, rather than merely demographic ups and downs.
However, this temporary shift in the balance of power between institutions and applicants does offer an opportunity to inculcate in both school leavers and those who advise them greater awareness of their role as a consumer – and we can see some evidence of this in the expert advice offered in that Times piece.
That there are so many surplus places available illustrates how successive governments have inflated the higher education market through a system which at once steered as many young people as possible towards university and guaranteed funding for each of them. Keeping people in education for longer is supposedly in large part about preparing them for the highly-skilled economy of tomorrow – yet the number of courses isn’t tracking industry demand, but state-driven supply.
As a result, lots of today’s graduates have racked up tens of thousands of pounds worth of debt only to end up in a job they are nominally over-qualified for – to stand still, in other words.
It has also greatly increased the competitive pressure on students whilst simultaneously stretching universities’ pastoral care systems and putting more young people into academic environments to which they might not be best suited, with negative welfare outcomes we have written about before.
Fortunately, after decades of neglect by both parties the Conservatives are finally showing signs of putting serious thought and investment into building alterative pathways from school to employment such as the new T Level, which aims to replace a confusing myriad of technical qualifications with a smaller number of vetted, high-quality courses.
Just this morning Sir Graham Brady has written about boosting technical schools, whilst Esther McVey sets out in the Sun how apprenticeships can offer a route to highly skilled and prestigious jobs which offer the opportunity to earn, rather than accrue debt.
Whilst this is a good start, the Government still needs to confront some big decisions about the role of the higher education sector and the state’s role in it. I have previously suggested reforming fees so that the state should concentrate subsidies on courses which create a clear return on investment to the nation, leaving universities to market the rest as best they can as private goods.
All of this is before we even consider the broader dangers of elite oversupply, which have been explored elsewhere. It might be too much to expect this embattled government to turn its mind to big and controversial strategic issues such as this – but would-be successors to the Tory leadership should give it some thought.