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Are we sending too many students to university?

Once again we have been treated in the media to happy smiling faces waving a piece of paper, which is their passport to Higher Education. In my day, nobody made a fuss about A Levels. Mind you, not many people took them 50 years ago and not many people went to university, thanks mainly to the iniquities of the 11 plus. So, whether you think it’s easier to get the grade now or not, at least the present system is delivering.

So, I say to all those smiling faces: Well done. Now the hard work really begins.

Now comes the caveat. I am one of those people who think we are sending too many people to university, at least the traditional type. That’s why, had I been a parliamentary candidate at the last General Election, there is no way I would have signed my party’s ‘pledge’ to abolish tuition fees. At least a willingness to pay, even delayed for many years, would give evidence of a student’s serious intent.

Judging by the record numbers of applications this year the thought of a pay back has not put that many people off. I have to admit that I got a grant when I studied; but that was affordable at a time when only a small fraction of the population attended the few universities and colleges that existed then.

Now we have a myriad of places vying with each other to attract students and the money they bring to help keep their ships afloat. The question students need to ask is whether the “product” they are buying will help them later, or whether they just want the chance to experience student life. If they are interested in the former, they need to make sure that the degree they obtain will not simply consign them to a future of zero hours contracts and temporary jobs.

In my day, the 11 plus was seen by many as the passport to success later in life and those who didn’t make the grade were unfairly viewed as failures. Ironically, many of them ended up with a standard of living at least equal to if not higher than their more academic contemporaries, without the head start the latter achieved.

It would appear that our society today views a traditional university degree in anything and of whatever quality as an absolute prerequisite to future success as it did the 11 plus all those years ago. They need to think again. We are rediscovering that we can make things again in this country, albeit often financed by foreign capital, instead of just shuffling money around in the City. So, we need engineers, and we need tradesmen to service our economy both national and domestic as it hopefully expands.

Someone once told me that it is harder to get an apprenticeship at Rolls Royce than to get into Oxbridge. It may be apocryphal, but that should be our direction of travel if our country is to hold its own in this ever more competitive world. In Germany, the words Dipl-Ing (Diplomingenieur) actually mean something after a person’s name. But the Germans have always viewed vocational education at least on a par with academic education, with enviable results.