Thursday, June 26, 2008

Another Social Engineering Flop

So who really did most for university participation?

We've blogged Labour's dire higher education policies many times (eg see here, here and here). In brief, they are spending £12bn pa in pursuit of an entirely arbitrary 50% participation target, producing massive dumbing down especially in lower division unis*, soaring drop-out rates, and wholesale overproduction of graduates with useless degrees.

But alongside their general headlong expansion, they're also pursuing policies aimed at widening participation among "lower socio-economic groups". This is classic education as social engineering: think Gordo's notorious attack on Oxford University for not admitting Laura Spence supposedly on class grounds. And predictably, its also turning out to be a complete and utter waste of money.

The National Audit Office has just reported a grim picture. Five years into the programme, and despite spending £392m, there is no credible evidence of success. Among other things, and as so often with government programmes, the data that's collected is wholly inadequate to support any serious conclusions. In fact, you'd almost think these people don't have a clue how to run anything.

And take a close look at that NAO chart above. The first point is that the big expansion in participation took place under those smash-the-public-services Tories. OK, a large chunk of that came from redefining the polytechnics as universities in 1992, but there was still a sizeable increase even without that.

The second point is that Labour's 50% target is defined not in terms of the traditional measure focused on full-time courses for 18-21 year olds, but it includes everyone under 30 taking full or part-time courses. Like for like, it ain't.

But even if the programme does succeed in boosting the number of students from these "lower socio-economic groups", so what? As we've said many times, university is too late: many of these people have already been failed by the state school system. Pushing them into third rate dumbed-down degree courses won't help with that at all. And it won't help them get a good job: something like three-quarters of new graduates now have to settle for non-graduate jobs.

So while the lib media wrings its hands at the NAO's startling revelation that poor white boys don't go to uni, we need to focus on that choice and competition programme for improving state schools: go Mikey!

*Footnote: Dumbing down is not confined to the newer Polytechnic unis. Earlier this month we heard of the sad demise of the Desmond (2:2 degree) in many of the older more established unis. Grade inflation has hugely boosted the number of 2:1s and firsts awarded. Liverpool Uni is worst with the proportion of firsts and 2:1s soaring by 23 percentage points in the last decade. But many others are not far behind, including Sussex, Southampton, and even Durham (14% increase). Shocker.

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