Tony Blair will call for a dramatic increase in the proportion of young people progressing into higher education (HE) over the next two decades to tackle the country’s productivity crisis.
In a report due to be published later this week, the former prime minister will recommend that by 2040 as many as 70% of young people should go into HE, potentially increasing economic growth by nearly 5% over the next generation.
Blair’s proposal, which builds on the 50% target he set when in government, is a challenge to the current administration, which – the report notes – appears “increasingly sceptical” about the value of HE.
“Far from reaching ‘peak grad’, as some in government argue, we will need many more workers with abilities acquired in HE settings,” the report will say. “We must therefore embark on a multi-parliament drive to raise educational attainment substantially with an eye on the skills our workforce will need not today, but in 20 or 30 years’ time.”
Under Blair’s proposal, the aim should be for the proportion going on to HE to increase to 60% by 2030 and 70% by 2040 in line with other high-innovation economies around the world.
The target refers to under 30s who progress into higher education, rather than just school leavers going to university. Universities are higher education providers, but higher education is also provided in other institutions including further education colleges.
The plans have the backing of Jo Johnson, former higher education minister and brother of the prime minister. Writing in the foreword to the report, which was reported in the Times on Monday and is being published by Tony Blair Institute, he said: “We still don’t have enough highly skilled individuals to fill many vacancies today.”
Lord Johnson added: “As we continue to mature as a knowledge economy, more jobs will be generated in sectors that disproportionately employ graduates. High-innovation economies, like South Korea, Japan and Canada, understand this and have boosted higher education; participation rates in these countries are already between 60% and 70%. We cannot afford for policy to remain steeped solely in today’s challenges and our ambition should be to join them.”
The government is considering reintroducing student number controls in England, potentially linked to graduate earnings, as well as creating minimum entry requirements for university courses. Blair’s report will warn, however, that squeezing HE participation “will leave Britons unprepared for the economy of the future”.
In 1999 Blair made a pledge for 50% of young adults to go into HE “in the next century”. That target was on track in 2017, when half of young people were likely to participate in HE for the first time by the age of 30, with Blair’s target including those studying for vocational qualifications such as higher diplomas.
Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, welcomed the former prime minister’s intervention. “I think Tony Blair is correct on this. We’ve already hit his old 50% target and we should clearly now go further, given we remain behind other countries and employers are crying out for highly skilled people.”
A Department for Education spokesperson said: “Our universities have an important role to play in our education system, but this route is not always in the best interests of the individual or nation.
“The Education Secretary has been clear about his vision for a high-quality skills system that meets the needs of employers and our economy, while ensuring we have high quality vocational and technical options that are just as prestigious and rewarding as academic routes.”