Higher & higher

Humans love credentials. But what are the forces behind the fact that more and more people want A-levels, and then more and more want higher education, and then more and more want postgraduate education? Peter Mandler of the University of Cambridge dives into the history

Gavin Williamson is probably the first education secretary since Keith Joseph in the 1980s to set his face against an expansion of higher education. He might have learned something from Keith Joseph’s sad experience. At a time when demand for higher education was surging, Joseph’s attempts to hold back the tide – indeed, to reduce HE participation from about 15% to 12% of the age cohort – were met by grim forebodings from his civil servants, followed by a Tory backbench revolt, and ultimately a regretful sacking by his boss and onetime protege Margaret Thatcher. He was replaced by the sunnier Kenneth Baker, who within a few years was setting a new target of 30% participation. In doing so he was putting himself (like any sensible, or any democratic politician should do) on the side of, rather than against, powerful social, cultural and economic forces.

It’s worth reminding ourselves of what those forces are and have been, precisely because we consistently overestimate the power of individual politicians (the Josephs or the Williamsons) to master them. They apply not only to Britain but to pretty much all modern societies (though in particular ways and for particular reasons, to Britain).

First, the social forces. All modern societies demand more symbolic and analytical thinking, more complex vocabularies and faster information processing. As the social scientist James Flynn has shown, in documenting ‘the Flynn effect’ whereby average IQ has been rising for the last century across all modern societies, just living in a rapidly changing and complexifying world sharpens your mind. But full-time education gives an essential boost to this process that no other institution can provide. Besides, other institutions – families, churches, workplaces – have surrendered much of their socialisation function. Schools and universities step into their places. It takes longer to learn the ways of the world and full-time education provides the essential setting in which that happens. We no longer throw our children into the workplace in their early teens or into marriage in their late teens. Instead we train them up in formal educational settings not just to 14 but to 18 and increasingly to 21.

Second, the economic. This is the argument for educational expansion we hear most about, largely because it’s the argument that politicians take most to heart – and, in Britain, it’s the one that the all-powerful Treasury needs to hear. In fact it is but a subset of the social. Economists have sought to document a ‘race between education and technology’, in which every new technological advance requires a new tranche of education. But even those who make this argument know it is not quite so simple. Educational expansion seems to precede as much as to follow from technological change. It’s hard to show how voters and politicians can anticipate future technological developments in making their plans for education today.

It’s also hard to show in any direct way how education contributes to productivity growth. At a high level of abstraction, obviously, a ‘knowledge economy’ requires a more educated workforce than an industrial or a pre-industrial one. But that’s the same level at which the social forces of modernity work, applying not just to the workplace but to every aspect of modern life. Below that level of abstraction – helping young people to acquire what Flynn calls ‘scientific spectacles’, habits of logic and organisation and discipline, as well as cultural literacy – it’s not clear that education can or should provide specific skills for specific jobs. Most graduate employers want ‘graduateness’, those ‘scientific spectacles’ and good habits, rather than graduates in some particular thing. Over three-quarters of all graduate jobs don’t specify a degree subject. Increasingly in the ‘third industrial revolution’, job training takes place on the job. Employers want cognitively skilled, flexible and trainable employees who can pick up new tasks quickly – and then change course quickly as the job requires.

Perhaps most powerful and most relevant in the British case are the cultural and political forces pressing for more and more education. Before the second world war, only about 20% of the age cohort had any experience at all of secondary education, and only 1–2% of higher education. After the war, as part of the unfolding of the welfare state – and of democracy (for one person, one vote only became universal after the war) – everyone was guaranteed a secondary education. Politicians of all parties were uncertain at the time how far that could, or would, go. A system of separate education for the ‘academic’ elite, perhaps the top 15–25%, in grammar schools, and ‘practical’ education for the rest was proposed. But in practice democracy would not put up with a two-tier system for a universal public service. As early as the early 1950s, hostility to selection at 11+ built up, especially in the skilled working class where frustration was greatest.

First it was secondary education. Then it was ‘the best’ secondary education for all. Then it was, inevitably, access to higher education

The NHS didn’t work that way – there wasn’t a system of ‘the best’ hospitals for some and adequate hospitals for the rest – why should education? More and more parents wanted exam qualifications for their children and more and more got them. Secondary modern schools that had previously been excluded from even offering exams offered them and their students passed them. The justification for separating ‘academic’ teenagers who could pass exams from others who couldn’t was in shreds. Comprehensive reorganisation was the result – the result not of Tony Crosland’s diktat in 1965 but of countless local decisions by parents, children and local authorities about who got access to ‘the best’ education.

This ‘race between education and democracy’, as we might call it, continues to this day. As opportunity expands, and the more privileged benefit from it most (as with the 11+), democracy demands more ‘equal opportunity’ for all.

The guaranteed minimum ratchets up. First it was secondary education.

Then it was ‘the best’ secondary education for all. Then it was, inevitably, access to higher education. The Robbins Principle guaranteeing this was a direct consequence of the collapse of the 11+. Keith Joseph’s attempt to stem the tide was swept aside.

Will Gavin Williamson be the next casualty?

It makes sense to take stock occasionally and ask, where will this stop? But the historical record is one of premature assessments to stop now. Meanwhile HE participation rates in Korea are above 70% and the recent kerfuffle over A-level results by algorithm in England is evidence that most parents are still dead keen to see their children pursue more education after age 18. The time to stop is probably not now.


Peter Mandler teaches modern British history at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge. He is president of the Historical Association and author of The Crisis of the Meritocracy: Britain’s Transition to Mass Education since the Second World War, published this month by Oxford University Press.

UB readers can claim 30% discount when buying The Crisis of the Meritocracy from the OUP website, using code AAFLYG

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