Myths around further education policy and student targets | Letters

David Blunkett reacts to Gavin Williamson’s comments about graduates in non-graduate jobs. Philip Knowles points out that the target was for 50% of young people to go into higher education, not just university

The education secretary, Gavin Williamson, has taken what is now a familiar sideswipe at British higher education, while quite correctly lauding the importance of developing further education (FE) and vocational skills (Ministers to ditch target of 50% of young people in England going to university, 9 July).

His assertion, in his speech on FE reform, that graduates taking non-graduate jobs resulted in “filtering down” and therefore displacing jobs that would have been taken by less-qualified students repeats a commonplace myth.

First, the evidence for this is substantially based on salary comparators that take no account of the different labour market conditions outside London and the south-east. Second, many higher education students transition into jobs requiring the capacity and flexibility needed in a rapidly changing global economy.

Most significantly – and this seems to have escaped the government completely – is that if students who in the next three years are restricted or discouraged from going to university, they will of course “filter down” in taking the very jobs that the chancellor’s kickstart programme is designed to provide for those without the prospects that higher education brings. It is difficult to see how more perverse government policy could be towards post-16 education.
David Blunkett
Labour, House of Lords

• There was never a target of 50% of young people going to university. As your article says, the target was for 50% of young people to go into higher education. That means level 4, 5 and 6 qualifications. Levels 4 and 5 would typically be studied at FE colleges as HNCs and HNDs, plus foundation degrees, as well as professional qualifications.

The constant misstatement by the media has perpetuated the myth about the target being solely about university, and has possibly resulted in many people who would have been better served by doing a vocational or professional qualification part-time at an FE college going to university. The aim that half our population should be better qualified than A-level standard (particularly in vocational qualifications) is reasonable and could help improve our low productivity levels.
Philip Knowles
Richmond, North Yorkshire

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