Cancel culture – that witch-hunt of the woke – is now so bad in our universities that the Government has decided that it has to appoint a champion to just allow free debate. Don’t let anyone tell you that there isn’t a problem in academia. From Churchill College Cambridge’s panel, which decided after due deliberation that Winston Churchill was more racist than Hitler, to the vanishingly small percentage of conservatives in academic positions, our universities, once the pride of the nation, now need outside protection from themselves. But the woke takeover is only the tip of the iceberg. For on closer examination far more is wrong that needs urgent attention.
I did not go to university in the conventional way. I left school in 1948 at 16, as did most, and entered the workforce. Working for a firm of solicitors, I took a law degree at University College, London as an evening student. I never lost touch and many years later I chaired the council of the university for a decade. I know at first hand the value of our universities to the nation.
But the tertiary sector has been transformed since my day, mainly by that purveyor of good intentions, Tony Blair. Out of the blue he suddenly announced a target that 50 per cent of school leavers should go to university. In my time the percentage was in single figures, which was far too low and had already been substantially increased. But to achieve this new target entry, standards were relaxed and the polytechnics and some of colleges were transformed from excellent institutions into second-rate, or worse, universities.
To achieve this target, student loans, a misnomer if there ever was one, were introduced and while they enabled many to go to university, what they learnt there often did little to improve their employability in later life.
About a quarter of university degrees are vocational in one way or another. If you want to become a doctor, a dentist, a lawyer or a vet, a university degree is a good foundation and essential for a scientist. Now far more degree subjects are needed to cater for the enormous expansion in student numbers. The universities both reduced the entry qualifications and so widened the range of degrees subjects that many came to be named after a well-known cartoon figure.
Standards have also been utterly jettisoned. When I went to UCL, of my class at graduation – which included, incidentally, a future Lord Chief Justice – about 2 per cent obtained a first-class degree and 7 per cent an upper second. The remainder was divided equally between a lower second, a pass and a fail, and in those days if you failed you went straight into National Service. Today, in many institutions, over half of those graduating leave with a first-class degree or upper second.
At one time, I was running Cable & Wireless and I visited Singapore to sign a new mobile contract. Lee Kuan Yew, the Senior Minister, asked to see me and, instead of asking me about the mobile contract, asked me why standards had fallen so much in British universities. He used, he said, to award civil service jobs on the basis of UK degrees. Today, the holder of a first-class degree from, and he named a university out of the Russell Group, is simply unemployable.
To make matters worse, many young people leave university without employable skills but burdened with a debt of up to £50,000. Although this only becomes repayable when earnings rise, it is a discouraging burden with which to start your adult life.
We are entering an era in which technology is going to play an ever-increasing role in our lives. It is quite likely that Artificial Intelligence will take over many, if not all, the professions. Of course, we need the liberal arts, which play an essential part in the life of the nation, but we also need the employable skills that the polytechnics used to provide. We should admit that we made a mistake and reconvert those universities back into the very good polytechnics that gave their graduates an excellent foundation for their future career.
I left public life with one unrequited ambition and that was to have chaired a Royal Commission on the Tertiary Sector. It could have been a great opportunity to refocus our universities, bring back our polytechnics and strengthen our training colleges to cater for a world in which technology is increasing exponentially and occupations evolving dramatically.
Even now it is not too late to act. And if we do so, we can begin to lay a firm foundation for an exciting future as we leave Brexit and Covid behind us.
Lord Young of Graffham is a former trade and industry secretary and President of the Campaign for Economic Growth