How do we persuade more young people to stay on in education and training after the age of 16? That's the big question currently facing ministers. Tony Blair has committed the Government to getting one half of the country's under-30s into higher education by 2010. Can it be done?
Some critics are sceptical. They ask whether it is possible to lift the proportion of the age group from its current one third to a half. The new foundation degrees in vocational subjects are only a qualified success, and putting on university summer schools to entice disadvantaged children into higher education can only scratch the surface of the problem.
Other experts wonder whether the 50 per cent target is even desirable. But David Robertson, an expert in higher education funding and a professor of public policy at Liverpool John Moores University, believes that it is actually both possible and necessary, so long as we learn some lessons from abroad.
France and America have systems that we should emulate, he says. One is state-controlled and the other is market-driven, but both do better than we do. In both, student demand for intermediate-level qualifications is buoyant. Young people want to stay on after 16 to take academic or vocational courses because they know it makes sense for their own career development.
But there are other reasons, too. The evidence shows that the French and American models actually fuel economic growth.
"An analysis of American prosperity over the past decade suggests that it is the associate degree taken by people at community colleges all over the United States that has driven the economy," says Professor Robertson. "We lack the reservoir that the Americans have - people who are middle- skilled, who have the qualifications to be the higher-grade designers, computer specialists, engineers and health care workers of the future."
The evidence of a link between the economy and skill levels in France is less conclusive, but French productivity and output per person are both higher than in the United Kingdom.
Professor Robertson, who has been commissioned to conduct research on the subject for the Higher Education Funding Council, believes his research has important lessons for the fledgling foundation degrees. These are the new two-year courses, which, it was hoped, would persuade more young people to continue their education after GCSEs. But, as an article in EDUCATION (16 May, 2002) revealed, some of these degrees are floundering because they can't attract students.
One reason, Professor Robertson believes, is that students in Britain don't have enough of an incentive to do one of the new two- year degrees when they can do a three-year honours degree. The annual cost is the same. You pay the flat-rate tuition fee of pounds 1,075, regardless of course and institution. Why shell out that kind of sum for a foundation degree in, say, e-systems, when you get a pukka degree if you stay on an extra year and pay not very much more? In France and America, there is a greater contrast between the intermediate-level qualifications, which take two years, and the higher-level ones that take four years.
The big factor fuelling demand in America is the cost. The associate degree and more vocational certificates are generally priced to attract customers, argues Professor Robertson. "People will do an associate degree at a community college because they can't initially afford to do a four-year university degree," he says. "Then they will top up to a four-year degree when they get the money together. Others will do an associate degree and decide that's all they want."
The relative cheapness of an associate degree compared with many four- year degrees at prestigious US universities cannot be overstated, says Professor Robertson, who recently gave a speech to the Social Market Foundation on the subject. …