Photo by Commercial Eye

An alternative to higher ed

We need more paths for young people

Artillery Row

Rishi Sunak’s campaign for the Conservative Party leadership is in trouble. He’s on the defensive on his tax plans whilst Liz Truss’s promises of tax cuts are holding the loyalty of the Tory faithful.

Parents don’t want their children subject to experimental reform

Whatever one thinks of her proposals, it’s hard to blame the activists. After twelve years in power, Tory members are frustrated that three prime ministers have failed (Brexit aside) to make this a more conservative country. Truss, whatever her faults, promises action.

Yet it need not have been this way. Rather than trashing his reputation with U-turns on economic policy, the former chancellor could have offered imaginative and ambitious proposals in other areas — breaking the debate out of its tax-and-mudslinging rut in the process.

Take universities. The Tories might not actually want to “abolish higher education”, but there is widespread and growing concern about the sector — recently outlined in this magazine by Sam Ashworth-Hayes — from its role in the culture wars to the proliferation of low-value courses after New Labour underwrote a massive expansion in the supply of students.

So far, there hasn’t been much evidence of the Government taking a strategic approach to this structural problem. There have been individual policies directed at universities, but nothing to address either the supply of would-be pupils or the excessive (and grade-inflationary) demand for degrees.

One way to do this would be reforming tuition fees, with the State being much more selective about which courses and students qualified for public subsidy.

But tackling the “supply side” of the problem has major political dangers. Status-conscious parents don’t want their children to be the first cohort subject to an experimental reform. A government committed to “levelling up” has to factor in that many second-tier universities are basically ways of disguising subsidies to regional towns.

An imaginative government could instead have a crack at reforming the “demand side” of the equation (employers’ escalating demand for degrees) by heavily restricting the use of degrees in public-sector recruitment.

This obviously wouldn’t apply to roles that required actual, technical qualifications — although there is a separate debate to be had about the long-term push to turn jobs such as nursing and policing into graduate professions, a development which has done neither field much good.

But why not apply it to the great number of office and administrative roles which would not, a generation ago, have needed a tertiary education? Today a degree is used mostly as a screen to reduce the number of applicants.

It isn’t a remotely efficient way of doing anything

The university lobby would doubtless start squealing about “skills”. In some respects a 21-year-old graduate is likely better-prepared for the workplace than an 18-year-old school-leaver.

Such a comparison is apples-to-oranges, however. The question is whether three years doing a random degree with relatively low contact time, and racking up huge debt in the process, is a remotely efficient way of conferring those skills. Which it obviously isn’t. It isn’t a remotely efficient way of doing anything.

Imagine if applicants to join the civil service instead sat something resembling a 21st century version of the classic imperial examinations: a relatively straightforward assessment of the skills and aptitudes needed to stand on the lowest rung of the Whitehall hierarchy.

Once through the door, this could be followed up by a comprehensive programme of apprenticeships to make sure civil servants both got the training they needed and the in-work qualifications they’d need to seek private-sector employment.

That, or similar schemes, would offer new entrants the basic training they needed in-house, all whilst earning, and in much less than three years.

Such a policy would need to be implemented with some care. It isn’t obvious that HR departments accustomed to farming out the first stage of the recruitment process to the universities, would be well-equipped to design a process intended to identify able school-leavers. The government would likely need to subject the content of both the initial exam and subsequent training to close oversight.

This push would probably be best conducted as part of a broader set of civil service reforms, if there were anyone in the Cummings mould inclined to conduct them. 

But it would be an ideal opportunity for the State to put its money where its mouth is, and for politicians to demonstrate to industry that the non-academic route to good employment isn’t just a B-track for other people’s kids.

With the civil service as a test case, similar schemes could be rolled out in other areas of the public sector — again, likely alongside other reform measures. If the Tories aren’t going to cut the size of the state, why not wield it to spearhead change?

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover