What is Blair on about? Nigel Farage tears into Tony over drive for university places

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When he was PM, Mr Blair set a 50 percent target for young people in higher education – a goal he has now set even higher at 70 percent by 2040. A report by the Tony Blair Institute published this week suggests that reaching this number would “significantly” raise the rate of productivity growth.

The analysis found that hitting the 70 percent target would boost the economy by almost 5 percent over the next generation, compared with allowing educational attainment to stagnate or even decline.

The current figure is 53 percent for school leaves going onto higher education.

A report by the Learning and Work Institute (L&W) in 2019 found that the UK skills shortage will cost the country £120 billion by 2030.

They also found that there will be a shortfall of 2.5 million highly skilled workers and an oversupply of 8.1 million people with traditionally intermediate or low skills.

This was confirmed more recently by the Institute for Employment Studies, which estimated there are 600,000 fewer people in work than before the pandemic.

But Mr Farage has slammed the suggestion, tweeting: “What is Blair on about?

“We have a skills shortage, not a lack of social science graduates!”

While his argument appears to oversimplify the issue, the former UKIP leader has his point backed up by industry experts.

Key figures in education have claimed that it would be more beneficial to increase the quality of university courses, rather than the quantity – and instead fund genuine alternatives such as apprenticeships to improve social mobility.

Will Tanner, director of centre-right think tank Onward, told The Times: “It is extraordinary that Tony Blair has examined the last two decades of university policy and concluded that his original 50 percent pledge did not go far enough.

“We need to boost the quality of degrees and fund meaningful alternatives like 16-18 apprenticeships, not focus on arbitrary targets that, however well-intentioned, ultimately undermine social mobility in the long run.”

The issue also appears to lie in the type of courses people are taking in university.

As Mr Farage rather bluntly puts it, the issue facing Britain’s job economy is not “a lack of social science graduates”.

Chief executive of the Association of Colleges David Hughes said that while the Tony Blair Institute is correct to conclude a link between higher education and productivity, “it is the type and timing of higher education that matters most in that equation.

“Our stagnant productivity will only shift if we have more people with the technical and higher level skills our labour market needs.”

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However Lord Johnson of Marylebone, the former universities minister and brother to the PM, supported Mr Blair’s conclusions.

In a foreword to the Tony Blair Institute’s report, Mr Johnson said: “We still don’t have enough highly skilled individuals to fill many vacancies today.

“As we continue to mature as a knowledge economy, more jobs will be generated in sectors that disproportionately employ graduates.”

He compared the UK to other high-innovation economies such as South Korea, Japan and Canada, who have boosted higher education rates to between 60 and 70 percent.
But the government appears to be heading in the other direction.

Ministers are currently consulting on reintroducing student number controls in England, as well as creating minimum entry requirements for university courses, both of which suggest a move away from higher education as the solution to Britain’s job economy.

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