The Millennium Cohort Study (MCS) is a long-term research project following the lives of some 19,000 children born in the year 2000. When the children in the study were toddlers, their mothers were asked what aspirations they had for their children. The overwhelming majority – nine in ten of them – wanted their children to go to university.   And why wouldn’t they? They wanted the very best for their children, as all new parents do. They had high aspirations for their children. The project was also known as ‘Children of the New Century’, and the mothers of the children in the study may have had an instinctive sense that this new century was going to make immense technological and intellectual demands on its populace. The MCS mothers wanted their children to thrive and to succeed. That’s why they wanted their children to go to university.

The world-wide evidence is on their side. It tells us that there is a salary premium for university graduates. It tells us that there are huge non-financial benefits to individuals and society which follow from going to university: graduates live longer, are more likely to vote, enjoy better health and, in surveys, report higher levels of happiness. Graduates are less likely to find themselves in prison. Their better health and lower offending rates reduce costs to society. For individuals and society, university works. This doesn’t – of course – mean it works for everyone. But if you were to give advice to any teenager, other things being equal, you’d advise them to go to university if they possibly could.

In 1999, Tony Blair captured both the aspiration and the effectiveness of this by looking to a future in which 50% of young people went on to higher education. As it happens, he did not pledge that 50% would go to university: the aim was for 50% of young people to have had some experience higher level education by the time they were thirty. That’s a complicated headline, and so it was always rendered as “50% going to university” – many politicians are known for mis-quotes as much as quotes. Despite what you might read in the papers, the target was never met. A couple of years ago it was reported (and this is complicated) that if present trends continued, then by the time they were 30, half of current eighteen-year olds would have some experience of higher education. However, the Secretary of State for Education, Gavin Williamson, himself a university graduate (Social Science, Bradford), has now made a speech which is reported as ‘formally abandoning’ the Blair commitment. He becomes the first Secretary of State for Education, it seems, to believe in less education.

This matters to me personally. My grandad worked for 42 years as an underground coal miner. My dad left school at 14 and worked for 28 years in a weaving factory until the recessions of the 1970s swept away his job and most of the UK textile industry. I had a different life: I stayed at school until I was 18. I went to university. I’ve had jobs in schools and universities, working with governments around the world. I’ve never been out of work. When I went to university, I had no idea what I wanted to do afterwards. My four daughters have all gone to university. We have had choices which my grandad and dad never had, and skills they never had the chance to develop. Above all, though, we have economic resilience and career adaptability. I have a photo of my grandad hanging on the wall on the stairs, and I sometimes try to imagine how I might explain the jobs I’ve done and the career I’ve had to him: I imagine sitting in his sitting room, in front of the black and white TV, the racing on, in his hand the bottle of beer he’d bought from the off licence on the way back from the bookies. It would all seem very remote to him.

My personal history, and my family’s experience, make me worried when government ministers lose faith in the potential of universities. The 21st century world is a knowledge-led world. Value is generated not through low- or mid-level skills but economic, social and technological transformation. It’s universities which are our best bet for the future because they produce advanced knowledge and research. That’s why all the world’s advanced economies are investing in higher education. In 2018, higher education participation in China, which was in single figures a generation ago, pass 47%. I want this nation’s young people to be able to compete for the best opportunities in the century to come.

The Secretary of State is quoted as saying that the purpose of education is to equip young people to get a job. As it happens, I have some sympathy with that view: education matters for both its own sake and for practical outcomes – in formal language, for both intrinsic and extrinsic purposes. It’s why both are intertwined in this university’s strategy and plans.  The minister for universities (History, York) made a speech ten days ago in which she said that “true social mobility is about getting people to choose the path that will lead to their desired destination”. That’s a deceptive statement. “Desired destinations” can limit aspirations. At my school some of my friends knew theirs: they went to work in car factories and mines. Ten years later they were out of work, with few prospects. I had no real idea of my “desired destination” when I was a teenager. Perhaps there are some young people, with all the knowledge of possibilities that social advantage confers, whose “desired destinations” expand their options. But for most, life and education are about expanding the range of what we think might be possible and discovering that there are things to do and ways to think that you never imagined before.

I think the Secretary of State for Education and the Minister are wrong. They are wrong economically, socially and politically. It’s always wrong for politicians – of left or right – to abandon aspiration. Of course the education and futures of those who do not progress to university are just as important as those who do, and governments of left and right have shamefully neglected them in this country for a hundred and fifty years. Of course those of us who lead and work in universities must demonstrate our value to those who do not attend university as much as to those who do. We can sometimes speak too much to ourselves, in impenetrable language. I’m passionate about this university for what it does – creating opportunity, transforming lives – but I also want us to engage with our whole community.

Education liberates. Above all, universities liberate. They are an economic and social good which pay off for individuals and society far more often and more handsomely than they go wrong. This is not the time to give up on aspirations for them. Do we want to prepare children and young people for the world we have or the future we cannot predict? As we lurch into an unpredictable post-pandemic world, the answer must surely be the latter.

2 thoughts on “Aspirations

  1. Thank you for the summary. I completely agree. ‘Desired destination’ means nothing unless people have an overview of possibilities beyond their own experience. My father’s view of higher education as a route to freedom was largely formed by the support of mid-century trade unions for community education. He educated himself in his own time, and developed a strong desire for his children to go to university. The occupational and financial landscape which allowed this has gone, and the future of work for all ages looks precarious. If numbers going to university are to be limited, there should be mechanisms to ensure entry from all social backgrounds, meaning not all those who expect to go would be able to do so. This seems unlikely when routes will be offered to fulfil a choice of pathway which is likely to be made too early. Engaging with communities may be an effective way to mitigate this and reinforce the aspiration that already exists in both young people and their families. The need for outreach work for all young people and adults, not just those who express an initial interest, has never been stronger.

  2. A strong argument for higher education. Good.

    But our country’s lack of interest in further education and lack of investment in its development is currently the biggest scandal in our education system.

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