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The legacy of Blair’s 50% university target: the high-skilled services can’t find good work for everyone

Joe Wright, 20 November 2013

Yesterday the ONS released one of its most comprehensive studies of the UK labour force. The headline findings were that 1) the number of graduates among the working-age populace now stands at 38% – double that of two decades ago, and 2), that inner London has a working-age population in which 60% have degrees. Good news. But neither of these discoveries seems particularly surprising, especially if you consider that central to Blair’s ‘education, education, education’ was getting more young people – 50% to be precise – into university.

The more alarming numbers, however, are further into the report where there are some signs of just how increasingly polarised, both regionally and sectorally, Britain is becoming, and the consequences it will have.

Firstly, compared with London’s booming graduate population, in the North-East just 29% of working-age people have a qualification above A-level standard. This is partly because London continues to draw talent away from the North. Secondly, it is also clear from the survey that the services sector is still soaking up larger amounts of talent. Just 7% of graduates work in the manufacturing sector, compared to 41% in Public Administration, Education and Health, and 21% in Banking and Finance. That may well be because qualifications are traditionally less-needed in the manufacturing sector than in banking, for example. But the survey also reveals that for non-graduates those numbers were 22% for working in Public Administration, Education and Health, 14% in Banking and Finance, with only 13% in manufacturing. UK policy-makers wish to create an economy more driven by high-skilled manufacturing, but it is clearer than ever we are still a long way off from creating a labour force predominantly involved in production.

Add to this the findings that there are signs typical graduate jobs are saturated with supply, ‘Nearly half of recent graduates were working in a non-graduate role, while a third were working in a low skilled role’, and it becomes clear how out-of-kilter education is with economic needs.

New Labour’s simplistic aim of getting more people into university completely neglected the virtues of vocational studies, indeed it almost stigmatised them. The reasoning behind their thinking was that neo-liberal economics demanded a population with ‘generalist skills’ that could adapt to shifting needs. Unfortunately those ‘needs’ have shifted away from the North and away from production.

1 comment on “The legacy of Blair’s 50% university target: the high-skilled services can’t find good work for everyone”

  1. The 50% target is a literal nonsense because it means that many school leavers with below average IQs would end up on degree course. .

    IQ in Britain is distributed like this: 25% have IQs of 110 or better; 50% have IQs in the 90-109 range; 25% have IQs of less than 90.

    Even with the current percentage going on to a degree course (43% is the last official figure) that would mean 18% had IQs of less than 110. But the actual position is worse because many with IQs of 100 or better will not take degrees. The same applies to those below 109. That must mean significant numbers of those now at university have below averages IQs.

    But being intellectually equipped to take a degree does not mean someone should take a degree. The individual must also have a strong academic bent. I went to university in the late sixties when around 8% of school leavers took a degree course. I never met anyone I felt did not have the capacity to take their degree course, but I met plenty who were not interested in what they were studying.

    The effect of allowing less and less able students onto degree courses is to reduced the difficulty of the courses because it is a case of catering for the least able. (The same applies to school exams from GCSE upwards)

    There is also the question of what I call intellectual socialisation. Just being around and interacting with intelligent educated people will enhance the general intellectual competence of even the brightest. Put more dullards into the mix and the effect is diluted.

    Readers may find these essays of interest:

    One further point. around six million people in Britain have IQs of 80 or less. 80 is the point at which many psychologists think that a person will struggle to live an independent life in an advanced industrial society like Britain. Such people need to the unskilled and low skilled jobs which are being taken in large numbers by immigrants.


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