Traditional three year tertiary degrees are under attack. Most recently, the Confederation of British Industry has argued that the UK risks a chronic skills gap if a growing demand for technical and higher skills is not met. Unsurprisingly, the response has not been to reject universities themselves. The recommendation is that business orientation and specific partnerships should be a larger feature of newly flexible degrees.
The underlying debate is that of social mobility. If the UK can mobilise higher education towards providing a broader, more relevant platform for higher skilled workers then public school monopoly may be curtailed. Universities are still considered a primary conduit for social mobility. In the quest to lead knowledge-economies hordes of young people must enter the lift at ground floor, undergo intensive treatment and be let off no less than three floors up. David Willetts, Universities and Sciences Minister has written in Prospect that university is a ‘transformative personal experience,’ socially and economically providing long-term earning and wellbeing prospects across a graduate’s lifetime. Opinion as to the nature of degrees is all that’s changed.
Nothing is so simple, especially in distinguishing social equality from mobility. Whilst the latter is the movement of an individual from one class to the other, a phenomenon which does little to alter stratification itself, equality is the fundamental right of everyone to an education, and for education’s sake, not just going up a few metaphorical floors. However much Access work is undertaken, there is only so much that can be done if a charismatic young person with outstanding grades simply does not feel enamoured with the particular aura of the best universities.
I attended a state comprehensive, I’m female and I do not come from a high income household. In being accepted to Oxford I probably kept a few quota-junkies happy. But I am wholly middle-class and white, and from the south of England. Despite cynicism at school as to whether I’d really ‘fit in’ at Hogwarts I fully embraced all Oxford had to offer, the culture, the traditions, the ludicrous amounts of Black Tie.
But there is not one student model. There should not be one accepted path, ‘follow the Redbrick road.’ CBI is right to emphasise ‘learn while you earn’ programmes and the enhancement of apprenticeships to a point where we no longer look enviously at our German friends. ‘Vocational’ should not be a dirty word, something for the dunces of the family whilst the best and brightest get all the status attached to attending universities.
In a recent interview with the Financial Times Peter Lampl, founder of the Sutton Trust, claimed that Oxford was two-thirds state school in his day, compared to 46% in 1996. Indeed, more must be done to encourage students into applying, but our focus should not rest solely on squeezing more and more young people into the gaps between dreaming spires. There is a finite amount of room. As the employability-based concerns of students increases, as well as employers’ concern for peoples’ ‘skills,’ there is an evident need for widening the question out – how can we generate a layered education system which provides different options that are equally valuable and equally attainable? By no means am I the first to ask, but the concern for skills is increasingly generating momentum and could well have far-reaching consequences.