Next week thousands of teenagers will gather nervously around notice boards in schools and sixth-form colleges, awaiting A-level results. For some this will be the end of the academic road, and they will take their grades with them into the job market. For many the grades will be the stepping stone to university.
If the Government's plans for higher education come to fruition, the next eight years will see many more students taking this route, to the point where 50 per cent of 18 to 30-year-olds attend university. To achieve this will mean enticing many of those in the 20 to 30 age range back into higher education. It will also require a change in attendance among school-leavers. How realistic is this 50 per cent target?
More realistic than we thought, according to a MORI poll conducted recently for the Sutton Trust. A representative sample of more than 2,600 11 to 16-year-olds were asked about their attitudes to HE. An extraordinary 68 per cent said they were either very likely, or fairly likely to go on to university with only 11 per cent ruling it out. The detailed findings reveal interesting differences in aspiration according to gender, family background and ethnic origin. Girls were more likely than boys to think they would progress to HE, and pupils from two-parent households were much more likely to aspire to attend university than children from single-parent families. Respondents from ethnic-minority backgrounds were more certain than white pupils that they were very likely to take this route.
The overall message is good news for the Government's 50 per cent target. Schoolchildren are much more ambitious than we have commonly supposed them to be. And yet, despite these good intentions, by the age of 17 only 58 per cent of children are in full-time education, and by 18 many more have fallen by the wayside. Clearly there are those whose academic aspirations are not well-served by our education system, and it is this problem that the Government will have to resolve to realise the 50 per cent target.
Why are so many bailing out of school at the earliest opportunity? A second survey, conducted for the Sutton Trust and the National Association of Head Teachers by the National Foundation for Educational Research, involved more than 750 teachers with responsibility for advising students on applications to HE. In their experience there were two main reasons why children opt out at 16: a desire and need to earn money; a lack of interest in academic work and general dislike of school. At 18, finance becomes the key; many bright, well-qualified students are put off by the prospect of three or four years of accumulated debt and lack of earnings.
These findings have important implications for education policy. We need to prevent the disenchantment at 16 that inclines so many young people to drop out. Children may not see the point of an excessively academic approach to learning, and the fact that boys are proportionally less likely to want to go on to university than girls underlines the urgency of introducing additional vocational courses to maintain their interest and reinforce the relevance of their studies. This means providing demanding courses in-keeping with students' interests, aptitude and potential.
We must remove the financial disincentive to study. The educational maintenance allowance, which pays 16-year-olds from low-income families to stay on after GCSEs, will help many over the first hurdle. Yet many will continue to fall at the second - fear of student debt - unless the review of student finance in the autumn is similarly imaginative.
It would certainly help if the Government extended the educational maintenance allowance to HE, but it has to be a high enough rate for the poorest students to live on. We should be aiming at means-tested grants, which taking account of assets, and of how many children are being funded, would see those from families earning less than, say, pound;10,000 a year receiving close to a full grant for both tuition and living expenses, and those whose families earn more than, say, pound;50,000 receiving no grant at all.
We simply cannot any longer afford to maintain a world-class university system, much less open it up to the maximum number of able students, on the money available from central government, which funds 90 per cent of the cost of university fees. All those students who next week gain the A-level grades necessary for university entry should be encouraged and enabled to follow that path if they wish, and we owe it to them to make this possible.
Peter Lampl is chairman of the Sutton Trust, a charity which promotes wider access to higher education