This generation has seen a significant shift in the attitudes towards a university education, with an increase of 1 in 50 students going to university in 1960, to 1 in 2 in recent years. We can attribute this meteoric rise in new graduates to a marked cultural shift away from the respectability of manual labour and local trades, to a university education seemingly being the bellwether of success. Although culturally this shift may have begun many years ago, the state began to make its preference for a university education known in 1992, with the move to convert polytechnics to universities and then again, during Blair's early premiership, with his aim to have 50% of students going on to university. With this large drive on pushing students into university courses they don't necessarily want or even need, this also leads to those who are forgotten by the system, the left behind who have seen their post-school pathways dwindle until it seems university is the only option aside from full time work. This will ultimately have a detrimental effect on society as the labour market gets hollowed out with an abundance of graduates and unskilled workers, leading to higher unemployment, but then a lack of middle management and skilled labourers as the pathways and funding for vocational courses dwindle. This is why Britain's education system needs rewiring to benefit all tiers of society, not just university students.
One would think that the more graduates in a country, the naturally more successful and profitable that country's workforce will be, however this isn't the case in a country where half of all students go on to gain a university level qualification. In 1960 when only 1 in 50 students went on to study at degree level it's true that simply having an undergraduate degree in their chosen field would be well worth the time and money because it set them apart from the workforce in general and almost guaranteed them a well-paying job, as graduates were in high demand. Nowadays however, this is simply not the case with popular debate as to whether a degree really is cost effective. The idea of a degree is that a student goes on to study a subject that they feel passionately about in order to further their own understanding and to positively contribute to their chosen field. As well as this, they would learn skills that make them more suitable to higher level, higher paying job, making the costly tuition fees cost effective as the student would be in a stronger financial position to repay this debt. Due to the cost and time however, university was meant to be only one of many options for those leaving school, alongside higher education technical colleges, apprenticeships, and full-time work. Nowadays however with a shift in attitudes towards university, and Blair's ill thought target of 50%, the system is failing.
The most obvious failing in the system is with regards to the aforementioned cost effectiveness of a degree. As with any product, the more of it, the less valuable it becomes, and this is the same with university degrees. Most graduates go to university with the hope of going into a high-level job once they graduate, however there simply aren't enough of these jobs to go around, the availability of graduates is out-running the demand. This naturally leads to vastly increased competition for the same jobs, and so a job where 50 years ago simply having a degree would make you a shoe in, now simply makes you an average applicant with the average amount of graduate applicants per job being 75 according to the institute of student employers. And so as the amount of people going on to university grows, it only reinforces the mindset that going to university is the natural course of action when one leaves school. This breeds problems of its own. With the conversion of the polytechnics to universities in 1992 it severely limited the availability of practical vocational courses, instead making the traditional academic subjects more widely available in a bid to get more students into university. This is where the problem began as it led to a great decline in skilled tradesmen and workers. Students who before may have trained as an electrician for example were now compelled, by the lack of vocational courses and pro-university rhetoric, to study an academic subject at a former polytechnic to no real benefit, only incurring thousands in debt that, due to the saturation of university education, was then passed on to the taxpayer (only 17% of graduates are expected to pay back their student loans). As more and more focus was placed on the expansion of universities and graduates, attention and funding slipped away from valuable apprenticeship schemes and HE vocational colleges. This ultimately led to a hollowing out of Britain's workforce as there are an abundance of graduates at the top as well as unskilled labourers at the bottom, but a marked absence of middle management and skilled workers. We have far more graduates than we need but nowhere near enough skilled worked. This gap in the workforce desperately needs filling but Britain's education system simply isn't in a position to fill the gap.
Not only is the increase in university students having negative effects on the students themselves, but it's also weakening the universities themselves. As pressure is placed on our world ranking universities to expand and offer more places, naturally the quality of education diminishes, and our universities will begin to slip in the world rankings. Once universities would specialise in particularly subjects such as STEM, but now they're being told to appeal to a broader range of students instead which only reduces the quality of education. So, although there are indeed more graduates, the level of education that they receive slips year by year.
Ultimately the drive to push more of the country through university achieves nothing except thousands of pounds worth of debt and the hollowing out of the labour market. Instead Britain should seek to revert back to 1992 when there were multiple clear paths for school leavers, either go to university to study a subject you feel passionately about or go to a vocational college and learn a valuable trade. We need to face the facts that those former polytechnics are not contributing to society, but rather the opposite by failing those people who don't want to spend three years of their life studying an academic subject they have no interest in simply to put it on a CV. Government priorities and cultural attitudes need to shift away from the expectation of students to go to university and instead focus on rewiring the education system to benefit all members of society.