Monday, 17 May 2021


At the 1997 Labour Party Conference Tony Blair announced his ambition to have over 50% of young people going to university.

Tony Blair! You once looked like this

In 2019 his ambition was fulfilled but the current Education Secretary Gavin Williamson has reversed this as a laudable aim saying there was an inbuilt  snobbishness about higher as opposed to further education.

Although in general  it goes against my nature to agree with Gavin, on this occasion I think he may have a point.

A model of the Lewes Road development – wall to wall student accommodation

In Brighton there are two universities with just over 38,000 students representing nearly 15% of the population.  New student housing blocks are beginning to dominate the city. Over 4000 apartments in such blocks have been built already with many more planned. But rentals of £1000 a month seems quite pricey for such tiny spaces.

A local resident – a Disgusted-of-Brighton is quoted in the Brighton Argus:

“The area has too many students already who, at such a number, do not add to the community and increase the amount of anti-social behaviour such as drinking and creating late-night noise (already a problem).”


He too has a point.

But something has changed owing to Covid. A sixth form college which has a brilliant record especially in obtaining Oxbridge entrants currently has several young people saying they won’t bother with University possibly ever but at least until after a gap year or two. 

Learning by road as opposed to by rote

It’s time to reflect seriously on what education is for. What’s the point of doing a three year course in Psychology and Politics and then working in a Call Centre? Is the 72 weeks at university and the £27,000 tuition fees plus living expenses (say a further £50,000) worth it? If your answer is “I learnt loads about myself and life; I met inspiring people who’ll be lifelong friends; I learnt how to do research; I learnt how to meet deadlines; I also learnt how to busk my way concealing what I didn’t know” then university will have been good for you and for society as a whole. Even better still if you learnt enough to know you can become an advancer of knowledge. 

But I worry that the academic ambition of universities is diluted because too many of that magic 50% shouldn’t have gone there in the first place.

Whilst for some, university opens doors in their minds and builds their resilience and confidence, for others it should enable them to learn how to be useful.  As teachers, nurses, care workers, architects, and engineers. Whatever.

But universities have become big businesses focused on scale. It’s never been easier to get into a university – good for their income - which leads to many providing a less than fulfilling experience.

University should be either the most thrilling and inspiring experience imaginable. The process of intellectual osmosis whereby the smartest kid in their school finds they are suddenly only average but then discovers talents they didn’t know they had is only found in good universities where the community of minds creates this joyful chemistry.

Or it should be useful.

"I hope we get jobs"

I believe in the virtues of academic education but not for everyone. The problem we’ve created is to presume “higher” is all that matters when “wider” for many is what they want and need.

Universities can do both.  Create geniuses and people with brilliant craft skills. They must do both to justify their existence and growth.

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