Imagining the future is never easy. But for teenagers in a pandemic, struggling to get a feel for university life from “virtual open days” now being conducted strictly via Zoom, it’s perhaps uniquely tough. This year’s lower sixth, only too aware of a harsh jobs market out there, are more anxious than ever about getting their decisions right.
Is university even worth it? Should they follow their hearts and study what they love, or buckle down to something boring but more likely to lead to a job? Enter the education secretary Gavin Williamson, scoffing, just as students return to campus, at “dead-end courses that leave young people with nothing but debt” – increasingly taken to mean almost anything but the government’s approved priorities of science, technology, maths and engineering.
Reading classics hardly held Boris Johnson back, and nor did his fiancee Carrie Symonds’s degree in art history and theatre studies stop her enjoying a successful career in PR. But their baby son’s future choices may be narrower. Williamson has already suggested halving subsidies for creative subjects such as drama, art and music, whose graduates may enrich lives but usually earn less than those heading into banking.
Even this week’s promised consultation on cutting tuition fees to £7,500 carries a possible sting in the tail. Lower fees imply lower budgets for all but Stem departments, which will get extra funding to reflect the greater cost of running these courses. Some fear that liberal arts and humanities courses could become increasingly unviable in all but elite universities, unhappily for the child with a passion for history or flair for languages. There seems little room in Williamson’s vision for considering what teenagers actually like and are good at, or what society values more than money, or the fact that if every 18-year-old chose to read maths tomorrow then the earnings premium attached to that subject might not survive a market suddenly flooded with mathematicians. The lingering suspicion, meanwhile, is that all this heralds a reduction in student numbers by the back door.
Margaret Thatcher was so loathed in academia that her alma mater Oxford refused her an honorary degree, but she presided over rising student numbers. Her successor, John Major, further opened up higher education by turning the old polytechnics into universities, and Tony Blair went further, setting a target for up to 50% of 18 to 30-year-olds to take part in some form of higher education (although not necessarily a full degree) in hopes of equipping them for high-skilled jobs.
Countless kids duly became the first in their families to go to university, watching our parents sob through our graduation ceremonies at the sight of sons and daughters miraculously acquiring opportunities they’d never had. But that quantum leap came at a cost, which the introduction of tuition fees has only ever partly shifted on to students themselves.
In England, graduates don’t start repaying student loans until they earn over £27,295 a year, and on current trends the Department for Education estimates that fewer than a third will ever earn enough to pay off the lot. Ministers have eyed the resulting black hole nervously for years but a recent change in government accounting rules, forcing ministers to include future loan losses on balance sheets, has concentrated minds.
Reducing fees and scrapping courses liable to produce lower earners – not just creative subjects, but perhaps also those that are willing to take kids with very poor A-level grades – could obviously help limit those losses. That, in turn, frees up money for further education and more vocational courses, following promises made to “red wall” voters that their children should be able to train for decent jobs without leaving their home towns. If so, we could be looking at a surprisingly radical redistribution of funding from a higher education sector still dominated by middle-class kids to a long-underfunded FE sector serving more working-class ones – and one that crucially consolidates a historic shift in the Conservative base.
The new dividing line in politics isn’t class, but education and its role in perpetuating liberal values, with leftwing parties across Europe and the US increasingly attracting graduates, while people who only ever finished high school lean to the right. The new squeeze on academia and the arts at university, together with threats to purge museum and gallery boards of supposedly “woke” trustees or make the BBC reflect more “red wall” sensibilities, suggests a broader and more audacious attack on liberal institutions. A prime minister with a mandate to remake the country for Conservative ends may finally have a strategy for doing so.
What if Johnson actually means it? That question is too rarely asked of a man whose talk of “levelling up’” is still seen as empty rhetoric on the left, and taken barely more seriously by some traditional Tory voters. They just can’t imagine him threatening their own children’s chances of trotting off to read art history, and they may yet be right. Perhaps it’s really all a mirage, encouraging kids in Hartlepool to wait at home for a glittering future that never quite comes, while others still reap the timeless rewards of going to university.
But a Conservative party seemingly willing to sacrifice the union for Brexit, or throw farmers to the wolves in return for a free trade deal with Australia, isn’t necessarily the one they know. If he does actually mean it, then we may be watching a new Boris Johnson emerge; less the hapless incompetent lurching from one Covid crisis to the next, and more a man whose ruthlessness it was never wise to underestimate.
Gaby Hinsliff is a Guardian columnist
This article was amended on 17 June 2021. An earlier version said that Tony Blair promised degrees for up to half of all 18-year-olds. Rather, his target was for up to 50% of 18 to 30-year-olds to take part in some form of higher education.