In Brief

More than half of young people now go to university

Milestone arrives 20 years after Tony Blair set it as a target

For the first time, more than half of young people go to university, 20 years after Tony Blair set that as a target.

Government data shows that a record 50.2% of those aged 17 to 30 in England had participated in higher education by 2017-18. This rose from 49.9% the previous year.

The rise is quite a change from early 1960s, when just 4% of school leavers went to university, rising to 14% by the end of the 1970s. Noting the milestone, The Times says “if there’s one thing likely to get baby-boomers chuntering, it’s the fact that so many young people go to university these days”.

Britain has reached the target later than some other countries. In 2017, 45% of under-30s in Britain had graduated from higher education, compared with 66% in Australia, 50% in Denmark and 48% in the Netherlands.

The then-prime minister Blair had set the target in 1999, two years after his general election manifesto speech that pledged to focus on “education, education, education”. Around 39% of young people were in higher education at that stage.

The Daily Mail recalls that Blair’s pledge was “controversial” with critics saying it would lead to those with low academic ability undertaking unsuitable courses. There were also concerns that the graduate job market would not be able to support so many people. 

However, Blair had insisted that a high number of graduates would “create a model nation based not on privilege, class or background”.

Commenting on the latest figures, Alan Smithers, education professor at the University of Buckingham, said: “It’s good that a lot more young people have the chance to go to university, but the great expansion has led to various strains within the system. At the moment not all courses enhance students’ lives and not all lead to good careers.”

Meanwhile, education secretary Gavin Williamson said that some universities were all talk and no action when it came to getting poor students through the door.

During a visit to King’s College London, Williamson said: “There’s a lot of virtue signalling going on but I’m not seeing enough results going on, and I’m not going to be timid in terms of naming and shaming universities that continuously lag behind.”

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