While we wait for University to become a truly universal possibility, we must also acknowledge that there are other valuable avenues of third level education.
Theresa May has called for better value for students in England, who she admits face “one of the most expensive systems of university tuition in the world.”
It was the headline remark from the Prime Minister’s announcement of a review of education funding for over-18s in England. However, May also pointed out the stigmas that remain around other forms of third level education, saying: "there remains a perception that going to University is really the only desirable route, while going into training is something for other people’s children."
She continued: “we need to throw away this outdated attitude for good, and create a system of tertiary (third level) education that works for all young people. That means equality of access to academic university education, which is not dependent on your background (and) a much greater focus on the technical alternatives too.”
In the past, creating better education for the masses meant getting more people into university. In 2009, Tony Blair notoriously announced a target of 50 percent of young people being in university education, believing that more graduates would lead to a better national workforce.
The target is all but reached – roughly half of young people go to university and roughly half do not – but there’s a contradiction to this success. In many ways it’s brilliant that such large numbers have access to university, but many people would argue that creating a workforce of graduates hasn’t necessarily created a stronger, more productive society.
The problem here doesn’t necessarily lie with Blair’s ambition, or the success in reaching it, but with how the young people are divided. High tuition fees mean that not all the young people who university is theoretically available to, can afford to get there; while many who are in universities would be better suited to studying at Further and Higher Education Colleges which offer more hands on training and workplace experience.
I imagine a girl from a middle class background, privately educated. Her dream is to be a software developer, but she faces another set of pressures, which tell her studying academic A-Levels and making a UCAS application to a Russel Group University is what the world expects of her.
May described the stereotypes that make this so by speaking metaphorically of two children. She described one who wanted to study law, but couldn’t because they didn’t have the private education benefits that many people who enter the profession depend on.
She then continued: “I imagine a second child. She’s a girl from a middle class background, who is privately educated. Her dream is to be a software developer, and she wishes she could go straight into the industry. But she faces another set of pressures, which tell her studying academic A-Levels and making a UCAS application to a Russel Group University is what the world expects of her. The idea that their might be another path, just as promising and better suited to her individual hopes and dreams simply doesn’t occur. In each case the situation is not working for the individual or for our country.”
The stats back this up. A recent piece in The Times claimed Britain needs to ditch its obsession with university education. The article pointed out that 40 per cent of workers studied the wrong subject for their eventual job; fifteen percent are actually overqualified for their jobs; and many businesses say they would much rather hire workers with technical qualifications than bachelor degrees.
For those within certain industries, or who have benefited from alternative routes of third level education, it has become clear that degrees and apprenticeships are no longer two completely separate journeys, but merely different paths. Yet despite this, May quoted figures in her speech that show fewer than 16,000 people completed higher qualification through the further education system, compared to almost 350,000 undergraduate degrees which were awarded last year, suggesting that the benefits of alternative educational routes have not been recognised by the public or supported by the government.
No matter what doubts remain about May’s ability to lower university fees, when it comes to third level education, the public have the power to change certain perceptions themselves.
Reaction to May’s speech has been understandably sceptical in some places, not least for the fact that May herself voted to raise the UK's undergraduate tuition fee cap to £9,000 per year in 2010. It's been questioned whether this speech is not simply a way to appeal to young voters, many of whom swayed towards labour in the last general election after Jeremy Corbyn promised to scrap tuition fees entirely and reintroduce maintenance grants for the less well-off. Elsewhere, even though she tried to make it clear that her interest in this issues stems from a genuine, career long passion (she began by referring to a speech she made on the subject early in her political career) many critics have suggested May's proposals are simply unworkable.
No matter what doubts remain about Theresa May’s ability to lower University fees, however, when it comes to her second point about third level education, the public have the power to change things themselves. Third Level education has changed drastically in recent times, but perceptions, in general, have not. On a national scale, anyone who chooses alternative forms of further education over university has had to deal with the perception that they’ve taken the second choice.
It’s time that all avenues of Higher Education were opened to everyone. They shouldn’t be a choice of class, finance, or ambition, but of relevance. Someone from a poorer background who is suited to academic study should feel no less worthy of University than someone from a richer family, with graduate parents; and someone with top class A-Level results shouldn’t feel they are taking the lesser option if they ignore university and choose training and workplace experience.
It remains to be seen what Theresa May can deliver on these issues. As always in politics, words can come easy, but actions prove difficult. While we wait for the government to deliver something, be it a cut to University fees, or a better way of paying for them, to make University possible for everyone, it’s time that society as a whole opened up the idea that in many ways Further Education, as a viable first choice for everyone, is already here.