Tony Blair calls for a drastic increase in young people in higher education | Education

Tony Blair will call for a dramatic increase in the proportion of young people progressing to higher education (HE) over the next two decades to tackle the country’s productivity crisis.

In a report to be released later this week, the former prime minister will recommend that by 2040 up to 70% of young people enter tertiary education, which could boost economic growth by up to 5% over the next generation.

Blair’s proposal, which builds on the 50% target he set for himself when he was in government, is a challenge for the current administration, which – notes the report – seems “increasingly more skeptical” about the value of higher education.

“Far from reaching the ‘top of the graduates’, as some in government claim, we will need many more workers with skills acquired in higher education institutions,” the report says. “So we need to embark on a multi-parliamentary campaign to dramatically raise educational standards with the skills our workforce will need not today, but 20 or 30 years from now in mind.”

According to Blair’s proposal, the target should be for the proportion going to tertiary education to increase to 60% by 2030 and 70% by 2040, in line with other high innovation economies around the world.

The target refers to under-30s progressing to higher education, rather than just school leavers going on to university. Universities are providers of higher education, but higher education is also provided in other institutions, including higher education institutions.

The plans have the backing of Jo Johnson, a former higher education minister and brother of the prime minister. The writing in the foreword to the report, which was reported in the Time Monday and is published by the Tony Blair Institute, he said, “We still don’t have enough highly qualified people to fill many vacancies today.”

Lord Johnson added: “As we continue to mature as a knowledge economy, more jobs will be created in sectors that disproportionately employ graduates. Economies with high innovation, such as South Korea, Japan and Canada, have understood this and have stimulated higher education; participation rates in these countries are already between 60 and 70%. We cannot afford politics to remain rooted only in today’s challenges and our ambition should be to join them.

The government is considering reintroducing controls on the number of students in England, potentially linked to the earnings of graduates, as well as creating minimum entry requirements for university courses. Blair’s report will warn, however, that reducing higher education participation “will leave Britons ill-prepared for the economy of the future”.

In 1999, Blair pledged that 50% of young adults would enter HE “in the next century”. This target was on track in 2017, when half of young people were likely to enter higher education for the first time by the age of 30, with Blair’s target including those studying for vocational qualifications such as higher degrees.

Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, welcomed the former prime minister’s intervention. “I think Tony Blair is right on this. We have already reached his old target of 50% and now we clearly need to go further, as we are still lagging behind other countries and employers are asking for people highly qualified.”

A Department for Education spokesman said: “Our universities have an important role to play in our education system, but this path is not always in the best interests of the individual or the nation.

“The Education Secretary has been clear on his vision for a high-quality skills system that meets the needs of employers and our economy, while ensuring we have high-quality vocational and technical options that are everything as prestigious and enriching as the academic paths.”

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