If there was one recent political pronouncement that summed up everything that has gone wrong with Britain socially and economically, it was Labour’s pledge to reduce university fees in England and to pay for it by further increasing the squeeze on pensions tax relief.
In a nutshell, it would man paying the younger generation to delay entering the world of work by penalising an older generation, who in some cases may have started work at the age of 14.
There might be some justification for this ‘wealth redistribution’ if all the students it is intended to benefit will go on to become brain surgeons or cutting-edge design engineers. But we know that will not be the case. It would seem that university in this country has become a means to an end rather than an end in itself, a ‘necessary rite of passage’ – at least for the middle classes – before the responsibilities of real adulthood.
Now, largely thanks to the university-educated ‘personnel police’ in human resources departments, employers have increasingly insisted on candidates for jobs possessing degrees when once Highers or ‘O’ grades would have sufficed.
Even nurses will soon need a degree if they wish to practice even though the horrendous reports that have followed multiple deaths in hospitals have shown that some nurses require not so much a degree but an injection of common sense and a heavy dose of natural compassion.
But at least nursing is a trade, profession (call it what you will) that is necessary – nay, more or less essential – to a civilised society. From watching historical documentaries on BBC4 and Channel 4, and the input to them from po-faced academics, it would appear that subjects which might once have been described as hobbies to be studied in one’s leisure time – such as ‘fairgrounds of the 19th century’ or ‘the rise and fall of the cinema organ’ – have since become degree subjects. In fact, it would not come as a surprise if the British university sector has more professors than the British Army has privates.
The cost of dinky, sociological courses in British universities is difficult to decipher but what is known is that in England the rise in university fees, which was meant to reduce the burden on the state, might actually increase it because students do not have to start paying back debts until they are earning at least £21,000 and as debts will be written off after 30 years, many individuals will never repay.
The Office for Budget Responsibility predicts that in 2046-47, when the first batch of £9,000 a year fees are due to be cancelled, £11.6 billion will be written off.
This suggests that while many students may find their time at university rewarding in a leaning and lifestyle sense, there will be little return in terms of a reasonably remunerative career. Can the country really afford this situation to continue indefinitely?
It is also worth noting the effect on those youngsters who choose not to attend university, either because they are not academically suited or simply disinclined to do so.
While at university my youngest daughter secured a weekend job with a well-known High Street clothing retailer, where she experienced resentment among full-time staff, not in a personal sense, but against students whose presence was thought to skew their salaries and conditions.
Now this one is a real ‘daddy’s girl’ who can normally wiggle me round her little finger but on this occasion I said to her: “You know what? My sympathies are entirely with your full-time colleagues on this issue.”
Let’s face it, most students would consider it beneath them to work full time in a shop after graduating – unless being fast-tracked on some management course.
I’ve often wondered if big business has supported the massive increase in the student population not because it wanted a better educated workforce but because it meant access to a huge pool of cheap, physically-fit, reasonably articulate, part-time labour.
Although student numbers were accelerated by Tony Blair, who famously said he wanted 50 per cent of school-leavers to go to university, the trend actually began with the John Major government and has been a cornerstone of both ruling parties ever since.
Yet they have consistently ignored the evidence from Switzerland, perhaps the most successful economy in Europe, which has a student population equating to just 13 per cent of school-leavers. This, incidentally, is no reflection on the standard of university education in the Alpine country, which attracts, pro rata, more international students than any other developed country.
Neither does it mean that 87 per cent of Swiss school-leavers go straight into work, because the country places a premium on vocational training which may be the reason why Swiss youth unemployment is an enviable sub-3pc.