The findings of the joint YouGov/Fabian poll showed that 35% of the population would prefer the level of HE/FE provision to fall and reap the benefits of reduced taxation in its stead. A further 45% believe that the balance between provision and taxation is about right, a figure that should worry HE/FE campaigners as it suggests that the electorate implicitly endorses the £449 million of cuts imposed on university budgets and £200 million taken from adult education at FE colleges since 2010.
Most concerning of all, however, was the discovery that almost as many 18 to 24 year-olds support a cut in spending on colleges and universities as back an increase. This means that the very constituency poised to lose out the most from continued budget cuts are divided on how to confront the issue.
Such findings will alarm activists working with the NUS and National Campaign Against Fees And Cuts, as two years of hard work combating the government’s restructuring of tertiary education seem to have done little to bring the majority of young people firmly on the side of opposing unjustified cuts on teaching, research, and building budgets.
However, what the findings hint at above all is the deep divisions between those young adults in education, and those out of it. Statistics from the Department of Business, Innovation & Skills show that in the third quarter of 2011, 23% of 18-24 year-olds were in full-time education, with an additional 16.2% in part-time education or training. This means that well over half of all young adults were not enrolled in any form of education at all. To put matters into even starker terms, it turns out that there were more 18-24 year-olds claiming Job Seeker’s Allowance last August (408,000) than there were graduates (320,000).
When the facts are laid out as barely as this, it can be of little surprise to find that the percentage favouring increased spending on education is so low. Those young people who never went to university, or were denied the opportunity of formal training, are more likely to favour spending on programmes to help the unemployed- since around 1 in 6 young people are currently classed as NEETs (Not in Education, Employment or Training).
Thus those championing increased investment in HE/FE institutions need to rethink their campaigns in order to engage those young people who do not attend university or college. One way to go about this would be to emphasise the great economic, social, and even health benefits to be reaped from a strengthened university sector. Research by the New Economic Foundation found that the public bonus generated by universities could amount to as much as £212 million per year, on top of and beyond the £33.4 billion the sector contributes to the UK’s annual GDP.
Those opposed to spending money on tertiary education should also be alerted to the fact that the sector is a massive provider of jobs, accounting for 1.2% of all UK full-time employment in 2007. In addition, as the Universities UK report highlighted in 2008, “for every 100 full time jobs within the universities themselves, more than 100 other full time equivalent jobs were generated through knock-on effects.”
Students and campaigners should use such research to argue that HE/FE institutions are powerful engines of economic growth, which foster employment opportunities for those who attend them and those who do not. They should also make the most of the ‘invisible’ benefits the sector provides, such as inspiring greater political interest among the population and encouraging higher levels of interpersonal trust.
The Fabian polling revealed that swing voters support a decrease in funding for tertiary education. If the sector is not to be forgotten at the next election, those who champion it need to embrace those young people who do not attend university or college and encourage them to join the fight by emphasising the economic and social benefits to be gained by boosting investment.
Every young person has the right to debate their education provision. However, only by joining together as a cohesive whole can this young generation change the nature of this debate and secure the future of HE/FE for the next.
Louie Woodall is Assistant Editor of the Young Fabians Blog