The target to send 50% of young people to university will be torn up and the Government will focus on building a “German-style” further education system, the Education Secretary has pledged.
Gavin Williamson has said a rebalance towards further education is vital for the UK’s economic recovery following Covid-19, adding that for decades the country has “failed” to give it the investment it deserves.
In a speech, Mr Williamson said there are “limits” to what can be achieved by sending more people into higher education, adding that it is “not always what the individual and nation needs”.
Former prime minister Tony Blair set a target of 50% of young people in England going into higher education more than two decades ago.
But Mr Williamson has said it was “a target for the sake of a target, not with a purpose”.
The minister said we should not seek to drive half of young people “down a path that can all too often end with graduates not having the skills they need to find meaningful work”.
In the virtual speech hosted by the Social Market Foundation, Mr Williamson said: “I don’t accept this absurd mantra that if you are not part of the 50% of the young people who go to university that you’ve somehow come up short.
“You have become one of the forgotten 50% who choose another path.
“It exasperates me that there is still an inbuilt snobbishness about higher being somehow better than further, when really they are both just different paths to fulfilling and skilled employment.”
Mr Williamson made a personal commitment to invest in fundamental reform to transform the post-16 education sector and to stand by the “forgotten 50%” of young people who do not go to university.
“Unless we change our course, we are condemning our country to low productivity and lost opportunity for a generation,” he warned.
His pledge comes ahead of the publication of a white paper this autumn which will set out the Government’s plans to build a “German-style” further education system to level up skills.
Mr Williamson said: “For decades, we have failed to give further education the investment it deserves.
“Our universities have an important role to play in our economy, society and culture, but there are limits to what we can achieve by sending ever more people into higher education, which is not always what the individual and nation needs.”
He highlighted figures suggesting more than a third of graduates end up in non-graduate jobs.
“I want everyone to feel the same burning pride for our colleges and the people who study there, in the way we do for our great universities and schools,” the minister added.
His comments come after Ucas figures show that the number of British school leavers applying to start degree courses this autumn has surged to a record high despite uncertainty amid the pandemic.
Official figures published last year showed that the proportion of young adults in England entering higher education rose above 50% for the first time in 2017/18.
It means a pledge made by Mr Blair in a speech in 1999 had finally been fulfilled.
James Kirkup, director of the Social Market Foundation, said: “Britain’s longstanding cultural bias against further and technical education is socially divisive and economically wasteful.
“Socially, too much of our national conversation is based on the implicit judgment that people who don’t go to university aren’t worth as much as those who do.”
David Hughes, chief executive of the Association of Colleges, said: “Our current system simply does not support the half of adults who don’t get the chance to study at higher levels.
“In fact it relegates them to second class citizens, without the investment and the opportunities to improve their life chances.”
He added that for too long the nation had “fixated” on a target set in a different era by a different leader when the needs were “vastly different”.
Alistair Jarvis, chief executive of Universities UK, said suggesting that there was an arbitrary maximum number of people who should be able to pursue higher education was “denying aspiration”.
He said: “What is important is that every student has the choice to follow the path which is right for them to best fulfil their potential.
“Increasing support for further education is an important move but it would be a mistake to view post-18 education as a binary choice between supporting either higher education or further education.”
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