University education does little for the employment prospects of school leavers, says Lord Young
Key vocational subjects to create an education system adapted to the 21st century
By Lord Young of Graffham, Secretary of State for Employment, 1985-87
In the mid-90s, I was in Singapore for Cable & Wireless, after winning their mobile contract. After the signing ceremony, Lee Kuan Yew, the Prime Minister, invited me to his office.
“What went wrong with your college education?” He started rather sharply. “I used to give government jobs on the basis of UK university degrees, but nowadays anyone with a first class degree from Strathclyde University is simply unemployable! “
I never knew why Strathclyde was chosen, but upon my return I found how the graduation marks had swelled, diluting the standards almost beyond recognition since my time. As a result, I went to see Gillian Shephard, then secretary of education.
When I told her what the Prime Minister said and the unbelievable inflation of the notes that I had discovered, she just said, “No, it’s not inflation. Students today are just smarter.
Well, I very much doubted that the students then were any smarter than the Greek students of 2000 years ago, that this had to be the line of the education department, and I realized that they were excusing simply the situation rather than managing it.
The Note Inflation Problem
I graduated with a law degree from UCL in the early 1950s and of the 120 students in my year (which combined Kings, LSE, and UCL) there were two first and seven upper seconds upon graduation. – about eight percent combined.
Even in good universities today, between a third and a half of graduates leave with a first or second year above. While a premiere was once a mark of distinction, now it’s almost a bad mark against you if you go without.
However, it is not only higher education, but the school system itself has suffered from the same disease. During the decade that I was president of the board of UCL, I went to law school every year in September and found the admissions tutor with the impossible task of allocating ten places to more than ‘a hundred candidates, each with 4 As.
I then realized that the dilution of standards had made college admissions more than anything else a lottery and hampered the selection of the brightest.
Yet over the years there has been a huge expansion of universities brought about by the combination of Tony Blair’s much-publicized decree that half of young people should go to college (finally achieved in 2019) and an expansion of student loans, only part of which is repaid. Yet no one in his administration, or since, has ever wondered if half of young people is the right proportion of our young people who will receive a diploma.
The cost of dropouts who postpone work for a degree
It is now an almost irresistible temptation for a young school leaver to take three years of leave, largely paid in the end by the State, to postpone his entry into office to obtain a diploma which often adds little to his employability. Quite the contrary, because they lack all the initial training which is so essential for many jobs, and which can rarely be made up afterwards.
Finally, you walk away with a debt burden of up to £ 40,000 or more, although repayments don’t start until you earn above a threshold. Can you think of a more effective way to limit ambition?
Of course, it is not just the government that should take the credit. The enormous expansion of the tertiary sector, necessary to achieve this expansion in demand, has been accompanied by an equivalent increase in the salaries and incomes of the best university administrators who now benefit from the attractive salary scales previously enjoyed by some CEOs. the private sector simply to administer the market demand created by the government.
Of course, about a third of university degrees are more or less professional. But these degrees rarely create a burden for the Student Loans Company and it is the other degrees, from media studies, that must be looked at.
A review of our tertiary sector is long overdue and should be combined with the need to introduce technical and vocational subjects into our school system and, finally, to bring our education system closer to the 21st century.