Williamson: 'Absurd mantra' of 50% is 'injustice'

Pushing young people to go to university when it's not right for them is an injustice, education secretary Gavin Williamson has said

Kate Parker

The education secretary says he doesn't accept 'this absurd mantra, that if you are not part of the 50 per cent of the young people who go to university that you’ve somehow come up short"

The "absurd" target of wanting 50 per cent of young people going to university is an injustice, education secretary Gavin Williamson has said today.

In a question and answer session with Social Market Foundation director James Kirkup, Mr Williamson said that there had been false targets pushing young people to go to university when it was not right for them.

He said: “We're doing a massive injustice and incredible injustice to that 50 per cent of young people that actually for one reason or another university doesn't work for them. And we got to drive better options for them. And we shouldn't be shy of pushing that right to the top of a policy agenda. 

"We've had these false targets of where we've just been pushing, pushing, pushing young people go to university, go to university, go to university. And we've not had an honest conversation about what is it that's going to work for you. What is it that is going to be able to release your dreams and opportunities, and it could be a whole range of different things. 

“Yes, it could be going to university. Yes, it could be going to college. Yes, it could be going and getting that apprenticeship. What I think is so unusual with things at the moment you have you have a prime minister, and you have a chancellor and you have an education secretary that are all completely of one mind that this has got to be the top part of our policy agenda.

“We've got to deliver this fundamental reform in this area. And if we don't, we aren't just going to be repeating the same mistakes that this country has been making for the last 40 and 50 years.”


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In his speech with the SMF today, Mr Williamson said that he didn’t “accept this absurd mantra, that if you are not part of the 50 per cent of the young people who go to university that you’ve somehow come up short. You have become one of the forgotten 50 per cent who choose another path.”

He said: “It exasperates me that there is still an inbuilt snobbishness about higher being somehow better than further, when really, they are both just different paths to fulfilling and skilled employment. Especially when the evidence demonstrates that further education can open the doors to greater opportunity, better prospects and transform lives.”

'Denigrating university education'

UCU general secretary Jo Grady said that “promising to scrap the 50 per cent target of young people going to university might secure a headline but the road to our recovery from the current crisis does not involve cutting the proportion of young people accessing education.”

She said: “The government should be encouraging people to attend all forms of education, not picking artificial winners in a market it has created, nor denigrating university education at a time when the sector desperately needs support.’

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders said that he was not sure “why the education secretary feels it necessary to denigrate the value of higher education in setting out his ambition for further education”.

He said: “FE and HE both have a place in developing the skills landscape and most FE colleges offer higher level and degree courses, often working in partnership with HE. Both sectors are of vital importance to our young people and our economy and already provide a variety of pathways to skills and careers." 

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Kate Parker

Kate Parker is a FE reporter.

Find me on Twitter @KateeParker

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