Ben HaywardJuly 8th
2020

Ministers have pledged to ditch a long-standing target to have at least half of England’s young people attend university. 

Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson, has said the goal is to be ‘torn up' by the government, as part of an effort to rebalance education  towards further education colleges and apprenticeships for school leavers aged 18 and over. 

In a speech on Thursday, Williamson said: “Our universities have an important role to play in our economy, society and culture but there are limits to what we can achieve by sending ever more people into higher education, which is not always what the individual and nation needs.”

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The 50% target was first put in place by the New Labour government under Tony Blair in 1999 and was probably reached in 2017 when half of 17- 30-year-olds were estimated to have entered higher education for the first time.

Chief executive of the Association of Colleges, David Hughes, has come out in support of the announcement saying it shows a move towards a more coherent education system.

Mr Hughes said: For too long, we’ve been fixated on a target set in a different era, by a different leader, when the needs of the country were vastly different.

“It’s time to move on to a more ambitious target, one which recognises that the world has changed and the needs of the country and of its citizens have changed.

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“Our current system simply does not support the half of adults who don’t get the chance to study at higher levels. In fact it relegates them to second class citizens, without the investment and the opportunities to improve their life chances.”

According to the Department for Education, 34% of university graduates end up in non-graduate jobs, a statistic which comes as a record 40% of 18-year-old school-leavers have applied to start undergraduate courses this September.

Mr Williamson said he wanted to make a ‘personal commitment’ to the 50% of young people who don’t go to university.

He said: “That’s why this autumn I will be publishing a white paper that will set out our plans to build a world-class, German-style further education system in Britain, and level up skills and opportunities.

“For decades, we have failed to give further education the investment it deserves.”

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Jo Grady, general secretary of the University and College Union (UCU), said further education had been particularly hard-hit under the Conservative government’s austerity programme.

“Further education is in dire need of funding, but that is because the Conservative governments of the last decade have decimated it,”she said.

“Promising to scrap the 50% target of young people going to university might secure a headline but the road to our recovery from the current crisis does not involve cutting the proportion of young people accessing education.

“The government should be encouraging people to attend all forms of education, not picking artificial winners in a market it has created, nor denigrating university education at a time when the sector desperately needs support.”

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