Education’s ‘Great Reversal’

They used to  focus  on skills shortages, but now more labour market commentaries are emphasising the under- utilisation of skills and qualifications;  particularly in relation to the excess supply of graduates compared to the number of ‘graduate jobs’ available.  More recently still, concern has focussed on the extent of unpaid student debt  – the consequence of graduates not earning enough to hit the pay back threshold, with estimates suggesting that with many graduates  trapped in low-paid jobs, up to half it may never be repaid.  This is Alison Wolf’s starting point and the justification for the Remaking of Tertiary Education[i] in which the influential Wolf calls for a sub-degree pathway providing more cost effective opportunities for young people to enter employment.

As Wolf correctly recognises, qualifications like Higher National Diplomas have long since disappeared as polytechnics have become degree issuing universities. Her proposals tail the Department for Education’s Post-16 Skills Plan[ii] which also outlines a new college based ‘technical’ pathway between academic education and work based apprenticeship training.

The problem is that (as Wolf acknowledges) the nature of the occupational structure is changing.  The expanding middle of the post-war period which generated most of the new technical jobs has been replaced by an ‘hour-glass’ or has gone increasingly ‘pear shaped’   – as more work has been automated and those who would have been expected to end up in ‘the middle’ being pushed down into less skilled and less well paid employment, but also finding that where this sort of employment continues to be available, employers are able to recruit graduates.

This is the reason for mass enrolment in higher education.  Despite the high fees, which were supposed to ‘price’ large numbers  out of HE, young people continue to enrol because even though having a degree may earn you less than it used to, in most cases it still provides  a ‘premium’ compared to being without. Unless a sub-degree qualification –which would be completed in two years and charge lower fees  -or a technical route, offers guarantees of a job and with few opportunities to complete more than a low-level and dead-end apprenticeship, there  would seem to be little chance that large numbers would reconsider anything but a university route.

Progressives should not support these ‘alternatives’ they are part of a  Great Reversal of education policy.  Despite its contradictions and distortions, mass participation in higher education, just like the comprehensive education that’s driven it, is a positive development and something not considered possible even  thirty years ago.  Higher education needs to be reorganised to accommodate these developments. Rather than offering different types of education, for different types of young people FE colleges and universities should be part of  local networks  of post-16 provision available to all and not only offering a variety of courses but a variety of assessment methods and different time frames.


[i] Remaking Tertiary Education: can we create a system that is fair and fit for purpose?

[ii] Department for Education/ Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. Post-16 Skills Plan

2 thoughts on “Education’s ‘Great Reversal’

  1. One minor correction: Higher National Diplomas are a long way from disappearing. HNDs (and HN Certificates) are the main form of higher education provision in Scottish colleges – and are the main factor behind Scotland’s relatively high rate of higher education participation.

    From this we can conclude that HNC/HND programmes are popular with students, and also appeal to providers. We do not know how employers view them, as the evidence on this is sparse and somewhat dated. A study of returns to different qualifications based on data for 1999 and 2000 showed that workers with an HNC/HND enjoyed a salary premium over unqualified workers, but fell well short of the average earnings of degree holders. This suggests that HND/HNCs were indeed valued by employers at that time.

    The authors, though, were careful not to make exaggerated claims. They reported that although HNC/D holders enjoyed an earnings premium compared with the unqualified, there was considerable variation around the mean. As well as varying by subject, they suggested that there was a substantial gender effect, and that the influence of other qualifications held was also important. So the Scottish evidence on the labour market value of HNC/D qualifications is at present not conclusive. And if there is any research on the non-economic benefits of HNC/Ds, then I’ve not yet seen it.

    The paper I am quoting from is available online at

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