There is the common assumption that if the state is involved in the provision of services or investments, it should act as an equalizer. Whether it is schools, hospitals or libraries, the job of government is to redistribute opportunities and ensure the protection of those in difficult times.
However, there are some obvious cases where government spending actually increases inequality. Take public investment in transport and infrastructure: in the five years to 2019-2020 the government has spent around £ 12,000 per person in London, the richest part of the UK, compared to 8,000 pounds in the north.
The most egregious, clear example of this is government spending on universities. When young people turn 18, the principle that more needs to be spent on educating children from unhappy families is turned upside down. The state invests an average of £ 29,000 in the education of each 53% of young people entering universities. There is nothing like it in the rest; many start right on a full-time basis, where for those without a degree, low-paying jobs predominate, giving little prospect of progress.
This is deeply unfair: significant taxpayer money goes to a disproportionate group of middle-class young people who enjoy the best opportunities; virtually nothing for those most unlucky in the school system, such as the relatively high dropout rate from compulsory education without basic levels number and literacy.
That’s why I have some sympathy for Tony Blair’s call to increase the number of young people entering the university to 70% by 2040. The former prime minister, the architect of the 50 per cent goal he set a little over two decades ago, has provoked the same mixed reaction to his new proposal. Some thought that “actively angry”: The state encourages more young people to take on debt for dubious value, and one in five young people is estimated to be in a better financial position if they did not go to universityevery third graduate turned up in non-diploma work and degrees are a requirement for a job they were not asked for 30 years ago.
But others point out that most graduates earn more than non-graduates, which is significant in the UK gaps in skills and that many employers won’t look at you if you don’t have a degree. Wouldn’t those who oppose enlargement, against the university, recommend it to their children?
Neither one nor the other is entirely correct. One of the problems with Blair’s initial reform was that it required a higher education system, which emerged when a small number of people went to university, and expanded it without asking if it needed to be reformed. This has led to a system that bakes existing inequalities far more than necessary.
There are two mechanisms by which this happens. The first is the social transition to adulthood. For one group of young people, there is government support to leave home and experience independent living in a safe environment with pastoral care, with people from different backgrounds. This is an intermediate experience, no longer a child, but not quite an adult. Another group will have to pave the way to independence on its own, without institutional support, in an economy where the best jobs tend to be in the areas with the most affordable housing prices. Not surprisingly, the level of education is fast becoming the most important political gap; new research shows that admission to university is related to a declining racist and authoritarian sentiments (as well as moving to the right on economic policy).
This is followed by unusual levels of social stratification conceived in the university system. Universities sort young people by their performance. A young person who receives three As marks on A-level will most likely be transferred to another institution before someone who receives 3 B. There is no justification because we have a school system in which it is generally accepted that secondary schools with mixed abilities produce best overall resultsbut a university system in which dropping one A-level grade can mean you have to go to another institution altogether.
This has huge disadvantages. University award their own degrees, so 2: 1 from one is not equivalent to back from another, and employers use university rankings generally for degree quality. However, in the most selective universities there are more students from rich families because bright children from poor families simply do not have access to the same educational opportunities, which reduces their academic performance. As such, our university system ultimately actively directs the most socially secure young people to the best jobs for graduates, whether or not slightly better A-level grades are an accurate indicator of someone’s potential in the workplace.
Of course, the skills that someone develops while learning on their degree are useful for the workplace, whether they are transferable skills such as critical thinking or certain technical skills. But it’s hard to see how much of a value to some degree comes from the social transition to adulthood, or the signal that the institution where you studied sends to employers, or the academic experience itself.
What if you take the £ 30,000 that the government spends on a young person at university and set aside that amount as a lifelong investment in the professional development of every 18-year-old? I doubt we would have developed from scratch the system we have today. Some could continue to support the social transition of all young people, perhaps by funding the paid costs of the opportunity to work together abroad or in different parts of the UK, or by helping them move to a place with a job in which they are interested. Some will go to intensive support for those who have left school without functional skills. More will go to higher-level training, where young people can simultaneously work, earn and learn skills more precisely adapted to the gaps that employers have to fill. Some of them will be set aside for lifelong learning, so that training after the age of 18 is not a one-off, but something that people can immerse themselves in and stand out for the rest of their working lives.
Mr Blair is right that 53% is not enough, but not 70%. Instead, we should at least invest the same in every 18-year-old and maybe even tip the balance the other way. But just plowing money into an elite system that provides class privileges because we lack the imagination to create something else would be a lost opportunity.