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Before the First World War, Britain, the first industial country, was outstripped in educational, technical and effective capability by a growing rival, Bismarckian Germany.  After the Second World War, Germany’s effort to re-establish its industrial base succeeded, while Britain’s plan to revive vocational schooling foundered

Why? Because we have been governed for well over a century by gifted amateurs, the product of an effete public school system, while our rivals have been led by meritocratic professionals, whose education has been more practical and whose ethos more ruthless.

Such is the school of criticism most devastatingly expressed by Corelli Barnett in The Audit of War.  But it had its proponents before he wrote – the non-appearance of technical schools, that missing leg of Rab Butler’s tripartite stool, has been lamented ever since they failed to happen.  And it has them now.

You can count Dominic Cummings among them, with his belief in an “Odyssean education“, his mantra of “investment in science”, and his fascination with DARPA, America’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.  Some see his hand everywhere in government.  Many will see it in Gavin Williamson’s speech yesterday.

As expected, the Education Secretary intimated the end of what he called Tony Blair’s 50 per cent target for university – though that was not quite what the latter originally announced, as Chris Skidmore wrote on this site in his comment article yesterday.

“It exasperates me that there is still an inbuilt snobbishness about higher being somehow better than further,” Williamson said, declaring that the latter form of education is crucial not just because of levelling up, but because it “is vital if we want the country to grow economically and our productivity to improve”.

This is a nakedly utilitarian view of education’s core purpose, unambiguously in line with that Barnettian way of thinking.  Some will dismiss it at once for that reason, arguing that education, especially at its higher levels, is an end in itself – not a means to such instrumental ends as higher productivity, more output and faster growth.

A more rounded view is to see Universities policy as a series of trade-offs – between local attendees at one end and international students at the other; between teaching and research, and between what knowledge for its own sake and taxpayer value for money.

For the fact is that once the latter is drawn into funding universities, whether through subsidising research, buildings or students, he is going to ask why, as the Education Secretary pointed out, “34 per cent of our graduates are in non-graduate jobs, more than any other countries in Europe except for Ireland and the Czech Republic”.

As Williamson suggested, the universities have enjoyed ten years of plenty – with the cap taken off student numbers, a subsidised student loan system, those loans kept off the Treasury’s books, and no responsibility for the future employability of the young people who pass through their door.  All at a time of “austerity”.

Williamson promised “a White Paper that will set out our plans to build a world-class, German-style further education system in Britain, and level up skills and opportunities”.  Expect it to echo much of what was recommended in the Augar Review.

As Alison Wolf, who has been advising Boris Johnson on skills, put it last year when writing on this site, the review’s proposed “to invigorate technical education, to allow adults to retrain and progress, and to reinstate maintenance grants for the poorest students”.

Cynics will say that we have heard all this from governments before and that nothing substantial will change.  Certainly, the Education Secretary’s lament about the alphabet soup of non-degree qualifications – “there are 12,000 different qualifications at level 3 and below” – was a variant on a familiar theme.

Cummings and Williamson are up against an ancient cultural inheritance that has gifted us some of the best universities in the world; a nexus of its graduates who are fixated on what goes on in them, as media coverage confirms, to the exclusion of what takes place in other colleges, and a lack of “parity of esteem”.

Futhermore, the Education Secretary may not survive a reshuffle in the summer or earlier, though with his state school background and educational links – his wife is a primary school teacher – he has a feeling for the subject that potential replacements might not.

The hard questions about the Government’s intentions include: how will a shift be managed when the public finances are running at full throttle elsewhere?  Will Ministers really allow the consequences of the Coronavirus to work their way through the universities?

After all, the slowdown in overseas students implies the slimdown or closure of some of the institutions about which Williamson was implicitly complaining.  But a cap on student numbers for each institution will apparently return – which will protect the stronger ones for gobbling up students from the weaker.

Nonetheless, one can’t complain that Cummings and Boris Johnson – an ultimate product of our liberal arts-friendly system, with his enthusiasm for the classics and book on The Dream of Rome – are failing to push the commitments made in last year’s Conservative Manifesto.

The White Paper and what will flow from it is a Red Wall-friendly, James Frayne-type move that follows the delivery of Brexit, the Prime Minister’s celebration of the NHS, the abolition of Dfid, and a purge of senior civil servants believed to be not up to the job (the Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Justice being the latest to leave).

All in all, Johnson, Cummings and Williamson will need more than 12 new Institutes of Technology, the National Skills Fund, T-levels and apprenticeships to shift Britain’s educational balance – in such a way as to compel a chapter when the historians get round to writing The Audit of Johnson.

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