Euan Blair, graduate of Bristol and Yale, eldest son of you-know-who, is railing against rip-off university education and privileged social networks.
There’s been “an explosion” of degree courses “and the ROI [Return on Investment] for a lot of them really isn’t very good,” he says – a point with which, this year in particular, many virtually-taught, fenced-off students may sympathise.
The very fact he talks so casually about Return on Investment is a clue that this Blair is not a politician but a businessman – an entrepreneur in fact, co-founder of the apprenticeships start-up Whitehat.
Of course, as he admits, university is about more than education. It’s also about making friends, contacts.
“It is important for people to have networks and one of the things that’s not fair at the moment is an accident of birth and where you go to school determines whether or not you’re able to have one of those networks. We want to give our apprentices that regardless of their background.” So Whitehat organises social events – talks, for example, by Alastair Campbell. Connections indeed.
100,000 people applied to Whitehat last year for apprenticeship positions
Credit: Geoff Pugh
It is easy to make cheap shots. Yet it doubtless would have been easier for Blair, now 36, to drift off, his courses in ancient history and international relations safely under his belt, into an anonymous, well-paid career in finance.
That’s where he was headed after joining Morgan Stanley weeks before the financial crash in 2008. Instead he quit after a few years, got involved in a project working with the long-term unemployed, and finally founded Whitehat, which shoots young people (usually) straight from school into top companies, and in doing so hopes to promote apprenticeships as every bit the equal of degrees.
Whitehat’s slice of the deal comes from the 0.5pc levy the Government charges on companies with a payroll of more than £3m, cash which they must use on apprentices, or lose. It “has grown 3x this year”, headcount has increased to 180, and last year it was valued at £40m. Blair owns about half, putting him at Number 70 on this year’s Telegraph Tech Hot 100 list of entrepreneurs.
In doing so, Blair finds himself actively dismantling one of his father’s great aims – getting half of young people into university.
The Blairs in 2001
Credit: Odd ANDERSEN/AFP
Apparently Blair père is unconcerned. “At the time it felt like the best way to give people access to opportunity, but it has not worked out like that,” says Euan. “He’s a big fan.”
So does that mean that power these days is best expressed through tech companies, not politics? “I think it does,” he says, with refreshing directness. “Because we’re in the midst of an era where politics is less consensus-driven. And that’s led to a lot of conflict within the political system, but also a challenge in terms of getting things done.
“And if governments are struggling to make changes that need to be made, then it is incumbent on the private sector and entrepreneurs to try and fill in.”
That more or less sums up the single generation transformation of power that technology has wrought. After all, when his father promised to send half of children to uni, Google was a year old and Facebook was five years from inception.
Today, Whitehat sends apprentices to both, and Blair is evangelical about the opportunities for jobs in data analysis.
It is, inevitably, fantastically competitive. More than 100,000 have applied to Whitehat in the last year (not all are young, midcareer retraining is on offer too), with just 2,000 having been accepted.
But it is a talent pool that is radically more diverse than that chucked out by traditional education: “About 40pc of our apprentices are from the areas of highest economic deprivation,” says Blair. “54pc are from minority ethnic backgrounds, about 57pc are women.”
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Even so, there’s still a stigma attached to apprenticeships, no? “Not from employers,” who are “actually very open minded.” It’s the parent-teacher dynamic that needs to change.
Teachers are still blinded by league tables determined by rates of university entry. And parents? Well “you do still have a perception that apprenticeships are mainly for the trades, but that is changing”. Not quite the “classless society” yet then.
Covid, though, is blowing up all kinds of accepted nostrums. Euan Blair hopes that preconceptions about education will be among them. And he may be right.
The tech revolution, automation, longer careers – all are contributing to bury the idea that “you do a shot of learning at the start of your career and that sees you across what might be a 60 year journey”.
It’s not a new idea. But now their time may finally have come, not just here but around the world, where the idea that degrees alone confer entry to certain jobs is increasingly seen as outdated.
If so, Blair wants to be a big part of it. “We are building what we hope will be one of the great European headquartered tech companies. We want this to be a multi-billion dollar business as well as a company that impacts on hundreds of thousands of lives.” Ambition, at least, runs in the family.