For the incoming labour government of the late 1990s, it was a landmark pledge. Britain's universities would no longer be the near-exclusive preserve of the middle and upper classes. It was time to speed up the opening of higher education that had marked the postwar period. The new target set by Prime Minister Tony Blair: within barely 20 years, half of all high-school graduates would attend university—adding more than 100,000 a year to the annual intake. Special emphasis would be given to students from poorer backgrounds and ethnic minorities. The age of elites was past.
At least, it was supposed to be. In fact, while Britain's universities still lead Europe on most measurements, these days the mood on campus is bleak. Lofty aspirations have proved tough to square with the day-to-day business of providing higher education, especially in an era of shrinking budgets. For the first time in more than a decade, some politicians are now even daring to say publicly what many are thinking: that it may not have been wise to throw wide the college doors. As Phil Willis, chairman of the parliamentary committee that overseas university education, puts it, "We have driven the train very fast—and it's hit the buffers."
And with a thumping crash. The grand experiment looks like a limited success at best. Academics and students grumble over sliding standards. Stretched by rising numbers, universities are pressing for hefty raises in the tuition fees—fixed by the state—that were introduced for the first time only three years ago. A cap on the number of extra university places imposed by a cash-strapped government spells disappointment for many would-be students this year. Even after intense pressure forced the government to fund 10,000 extra places this summer, some 40,000 applicants may still be denied the chance to start a university education in the fall.
Yet plenty of experts see this as a necessary correction. According to critics, the very idea of a target was a distraction that raised students' hopes higher than government, or society, could bear. Anna Fazackerley, an education specialist at the London think tank Policy Exchange, says Blair's promise was nothing better than "a back-of-the-envelope calculation, a PR exercise. The figure was simply chosen because it sounded good." In practice, it has encouraged unrealistic aspirations and reinforced the notion that a university education is vital for all—which a growing chorus of advocates disputes. "Students have been told they have to go to university if they want to get a good job and everyone should aspire to a place, but they're now finding it's going to be very difficult."
Measured by numbers alone, the policy looks like a qualified success. Back in 1998, a year before Blair made his promise, 329,000 British students started a university degree. This year 592,000 people applied to start full-time undergraduate courses, a leap of almost 10 percent over 2008, as the lean job market sent more students back to the relative safety of school (and in search of higher qualifications). At the same time, courses have proliferated to suit a wider range of talents and interests, many of them—think golf management or baking technology—not what you would call strictly academic.
What worries academics is the dilution of standards that has followed from rising numbers and lower entry requirements. Too much time is now needed for remedial training essential to bring students up to the basic level needed for a degree, says Frank Furedi, professor of sociology at the University of Kent. Serious education now only begins at the postgraduate stage. "It has just not been possible to reconcile traditional standards with the social-engineering imperative," he argues. As a result, a whole approach to higher education is now under threat. After all, as Furedi puts it, a degree is not necessarily the benchmark of a good education.
If the reward for the new emphasis on numbers was a richer mix of students, the critics might stay quiet. But such hopes have been disappointed. "There has been some progress over the last ten years, but nowhere near as much as could have been achieved," says Lee Elliot Major of the Sutton Trust, which promotes social mobility. Applicants from higher-earning families are still 10 times more likely to win a place at one of the country's elite universities than those from the poorest backgrounds, he says. Oxford still takes 45 percent of its undergraduates from private schools, which educate just 7 percent of the nation's children. A government-backed study, published this summer, called on universities to discriminate in favor of pupils from low-income homes by admitting them with lower grades. Yet drop-out rates have climbed at the less prestigious universities, which attract most of the children from working-class backgrounds. At some, more than 15 percent now fail to return after the end of their first year.
One target for blame is the government, which is finding it just can't deliver on a promise made during flusher times. Labour has willed the means but not the ends for its audacious proposal. Spending on higher education has certainly risen of late—up 25 percent in real terms in the last 10 years—but that's not enough to cover the extra costs. As a result, there's been too little cash to provide the staff needed to deal with the extra students, many of whom have no family history of university education and thus need special support. "Our people are caught between a rock and a hard place," says Sally Hunt of the University and College Union, which represents British college lecturers. "They are trying to maintain quality but are not given the resources to do it."
It's no surprise that students are unhappy, too. Tuition fees in the U.K. may still be modest by U.S. standards—the government has fixed the maximum at £3,500 a year—but even that much is a burden, especially for less advantaged kids. And the government is currently reviewing the fees, creating loud speculation that the level will rise sharply after the general election, whichever party wins. The introduction of fees has also fostered a new sense among students that they're consumers who can expect—and have a right to demand—value for money. Several leading universities, including Manchester and Bristol, have been hit by angry student protests this year over larger class sizes and cuts in teaching time, and more demonstrations are likely. The 130 English universities that receive state money all expect punishing funding cuts this year, and the government has already ordered efficiency savings of £400 million in higher education.
Politicians and professors are also beginning to ask whether Britain is producing too many graduates in the wrong subjects. So far, the Conservatives—the heavy favorites in the next election—have hesitated to call for a radical rethink of Blair's great promise for fear of subjecting themselves once more to the old charge of elitism. But the cause has been taken up by the opposition Liberal Democrats. "How much longer can we pretend that it is sensible or affordable to chase the government's (50 percent) target?" the party's deputy leader, Vince Cable, asked a party conference earlier this year.
The problem, put simply, is that Britain can't supply enough jobs to match its universities' output. "We are distorting the labor market," says Anastasia de Waal, author of "Unqualified Success," an upcoming study of the U.K.'s universities. "We have made a lot of jobs that weren't considered graduate jobs into graduate jobs, and that squeezes the opportunities for those that don't have degrees." The United Kingdom now boasts more than 10 million graduates, but can only provide 9 million graduate-level jobs, according to figures from the Confederation of British Industry. And the prospects for this year's crop of finishing students look especially bleak, with half of all firms surveyed indicating that they will not be hiring graduates. Figures produced by the Liberal Democrats now show that 14 percent of students did not have a graduate-level job within five years of leaving school.
What's needed, say the critics, may be a more pragmatic approach, with government funds directed more to students focusing on subjects of obvious value to the economy, such as science or technology. At the same time, some experts advocate a shift of emphasis to vocational training and enhancing the status of vocational qualifications. "The equation between the number going to university and economic benefit is pretty spurious," says de Waal. Hard times demand hard decisions, and universities can't be immune.