Moving the goalposts on higher education will leave scars on our society, says Aaron Porter

As A-level results day approaches it is already clear that over 150,000 students with both the grades and the desire to study at university this year will be left without a place.

Crucially, this limit on places is not one of necessity; the restrictions on university places are being achieved through an entirely arbitrary cap on student numbers which is itself being enforced through the government’s threat to fine any university which ends up oversubscribed.

Michael Brown, vice-chancellor of Liverpool John Moores university said last week that the government fines for over recruitment mean that some universities will even have empty spaces despite turning qualified applicants away, with government fines preventing universities from accounting for inevitable drop-outs before the start of term by slightly oversubscribing courses at this stage.

This is both morally unacceptable and economically short-sighted. It is morally unacceptable that students who have worked in order to achieve grades that would normally be sufficient to study at university will – for reasons entirely out of their control – find that the goalposts have been drastically moved. These young people are being denied the opportunity to study at university, with all the intrinsic value that holds, together with the increased work and career opportunities that affords.

Instead, these young people will have to enter what is already an incredibly competitive job market. Sadly, as things stand, hundreds of thousands of young people competing for jobs that are already in scarce supply will mean that for many, rather than heading off to study this September, they will be signing on, with all the economic and social cost that entails.

Professor David Blanchflower, formerly of the bank of england’s monetary policy committee warned last week that youth unemployment was on the increase and would soon pass the 1 million mark. Things look bleak for a generation that is at real risk of being lost. This is for every one of them a personal tragedy – and it is simply unacceptable for the government to shirk their responsibility and to cite budgetary pressures as an excuse for leaving them to sink or swim. That is a national disgrace.

But it also doesn’t make basic economic sense. Why prevent someone from going to university when they are qualified, willing and able, by citing the cost of supporting their education, to then spend government money a couple of months later on their job seeker’s allowance? Surely the cost of supporting someone’s education is a more strategic way to spend public money than extra benefit payments. And as we look towards the medium and longer term, would we rather have some extra graduates in three years time, or young people who have instead had all aspiration sapped out of them at such an early age? If these people are treated decently, they have the potential to be the engine of economic recovery in a context where the country needs more high-level skills, and where the US and France are investing in higher education in recognition of its strategic importance to their national fate.

Of course, university funding is a vexed issue which needs to be properly addressed. Whilst we would argue that the government should in this case increase funding to support our young people, the situation clearly demonstrates that the current system is itself simply unsustainable, unable as it is to support the hundreds of thousands of applicants who have ‘made the grade’. The NUS continues to argue for a progressive graduate contribution model for university funding – this would bring significant additional funds into the sector, which would support its expansion, in a way that is sustainable, progressive and fair.

But in the short term, ministers must make clear what on earth they expect young people to do, when they are shut out of university in September. If they are left to sink or swim in the midst of this perfect storm, we risk creating a lost generation whose life chances have been scuppered and whose legacy will leave permanent scars on both our economy and society.

Aaron Porter is NUS National President.

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6 Responses to “Moving the goalposts on higher education will leave scars on our society, says Aaron Porter”

  1. Minnie says:

    In 2005/6 there were 1,057,900 EU and non-EU students attending British Universities. If students were happy about that under a Labour government I can’t see why they would suddenly start objecting about it under a Conservative government.

  2. Realist says:

    We have to be realist – we can’t all have what we want. We don’t need half the population to have academic DEGREES. We do need skilled people, plumbers, mechanics, hair dressers, etc. etc. We needto train people and pay then suitably. Bring back the Poly’s, day release, city&guilds !!

  3. Realist says:

    correction – realistist NOT realist in comment

  4. Steve Haynes says:

    1) There aren’t enough jobs for graduates anyway. The Market is over-saturated. As someone who just graduated I can tell you this for a fact as all of my mates are struggling to get jobs in ANY form. Never mind jobs which are supposed to be ‘ worthy’ of someone with a degree.

    2) As has been said a degree isn’t needed to get on with life. Maybe if the NUS actually started to act as though that was the case and started pushing for ‘ student-hood’ to be expanded into areas such as apprenticeships, and also pushed for Universities to teach more practical courses such as Plumbing etc., rather than Golf Management, the NUS would actually be good for something.

    But that would actually be useful and involve the NUS doing something useful and proactive instead of doign absolutely bugger all for the average student.

    Sincerely yours,

    An extremely annoyed Post-graduate student

  5. David blanchflower says:

    Very sensible post. I agree completely. The big worry is that this government is going to condemn perhaps an 200000 additional young people to the dole because of its policy to restrict university places as well as to remove programs to help young people make the school to work transition.

    Even for those who do get jobs their lifetime earnings will be lower because they entered the labour market in a recession.

    And this government is doing absolutely ZERO. It’s time to start creating jobs not destroying them
    Sad days
    I will continue to speak up for the young as nobody else seems to be doing so.

  6. Realist says:

    David – are you advocated unrestricted access to full time HE ? Where will it stop ? Would be it everyone’s right to a BSc ? MSc ? PhD? Post doc research ??

    We need to provide SUITABLE education and training for all young people and this shouldn’t be limited to academic degrees
    a. many jobs do NOT require an academic degree style backgound
    b. the country can’t afford it
    c. there are better ways of preparing people for a wide range of valuable careers

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