“If you are academic, [England] is still one of the best countries in which to be born, particularly if you’re born into a middle-class family and your parents have some means,” said Lammy, MP for Tottenham. “But if you’re not academic I think there are quite a lot of countries we would choose above our own.”
Lammy said he has grown “more sceptical of the miracle of mass participation in universities than I was as a younger man”. While he wouldn’t want to return to just 8% of the population attending university, as would have been the case when he was born in 1972, he urged the government to pay more attention to vocational routes.
His focus has now turned towards young people who don’t go to university, partly because of the lack of opportunities for them, but also because they miss out on a transformative experience, Lammy said.
The government’s recently published Augar review of post-18 education and funding set out a new vision for England’s higher and further education system that, if implemented, would rebalance spending away from universities and towards vocational and technical education. The report described a disparity between the 50% of young people who go to university and the rest that “simply has to be addressed … [as] a matter of fairness and equity”.
Lammy added that young people graduating from university do not always secure as good jobs as they should. “You find that there are students from non-traditional backgrounds – of course some black and ethnic minorities but also many [white] working-class students – who get to university and […] this promise they were sold, isn’t quite what it says on the tin.”
He noted that university access data reveals that geography is as much of a fault line as class or race. “Two London boroughs, Richmond and Barnet, send more kids to Oxbridge than the entirety of Sheffield, Leeds and Manchester combined,” he said. “That gets to the bigger questions in this country, circa 2019, behind Brexit […] about class and about geography [which] just continue to go largely unaddressed, and that is a scandal.”
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