The 12% fall in Ucas applications is welcome – young people are being encouraged to choose the path that is right for them.
A dangerous conveyor belt transports many of our young people to university education. It is dangerous, to pinch an ugly word from trade union lexicography, for its “automaticity”, the almost involuntary expectation that university is the right option simply because it’s available.
An unintended consequence of the fee/loan structure, which kicks in next academic year, is that it is has forced a period of reflection upon many children, highlighted by the 12% fall in applications to university revealed by Ucas. But I welcome it.
In 1969, I applied to Cambridge University to read economics but was rejected for lacking “academic maturity”. I swore a bit and accepted an “easy offer” of two Bs and a C from Bristol University. In 1972, I became sabbatical deputy president of the student union and then, for two years, sabbatical deputy president of the National Union of Students. At the end of three years’ full-time rabble-rousing, I was set to return to Bristol to finish my degree, but following an appearance on an ITV news programme, I was offered a job.
I rejected it and told them, and my family, I was going to return to university. I’d graduate, become an MP, the chancellor of the exchequer and change the world. It was my father who said “you’re nuts” – a job versus yet more time in university? This radical approach from a conservative military man shocked me; but I reflected, took his advice and re-opened talks with ITV.
Charles Clarke was president of the NUS when I was deputy president. Later, when Labour raised fees and introduced loans, we clashed. I held to the Robbins principle that money should never get in the way of young people aspiring to university. He argued, and still believes, the new financial arrangement would demand greater efficiency and value for money from the universities; it would also, he suggested, make young people more demanding of the universities and better judges of educational value for money. Their aspirations, he insisted, would not be financially hindered.
It has taken time but I think he has been proved broadly correct; the drop-off in applications partly reflects that. Young people are now embarking upon a more astute examination of their objectives – you don’t just sign up to nearly £30,000 of debt on a whim. They are thinking more profoundly about the pros and cons, for them, of a university education.
They have become sharper judges – student satisfaction surveys already reflect that – and will become all the keener after next year. If facilities are inadequate, they will want to know why. A version of “I want my money back” will replace our old chants about the level of rent and grants.
As a governor of Ravensbourne, a specialist media and design university, I am keenly aware of the pressure on providers. We have to sharpen up our acts if we are to justify high fees and continue to attract the numbers. It is a fundamental shift from the easy days of guaranteed local government finance and tenure for the academic staff. We need to do better and are striving to do so.
All young people need to secure the maximum education they can benefit from. Their minds need to be open to apprenticeships, FE, technical colleges – right up to the new and the traditional universities. Minds need to be open to what is right for them rather than embarking upon a potentially expensive journey along that educational conveyor belt.
I do not want to see any young person denied the chance of maximising educational potential for financial reasons. If that is the case, then the loan and repayment structures need to be re-examined and, if found sound, explained all the better. If they are found lacking, then, as David Willetts has promised, they need to be reviewed.
For my eldest son, who studied English at Oxford, reflection came late and he is now a content police officer. My daughter turned down a place to read music at Bristol and switched to education and English at Winchester University. She is now a content teacher. I also have a son who is a show-jumping pupil at an Olympian’s academy and my youngest son, still at school, wants to be a tree surgeon. The message is beginning to filter down, slowly but surely.