Tony Blair’s landmark target for half of school leavers to attend university is no longer fit for purpose, his son has said – claiming that the former prime minister agrees with him.
Euan Blair, who runs a start-up aiming to get more young people into apprenticeships, said that the New Labour target is out of date and “has not worked out”.
Set out in 1999, the policy was a flagship part of Number 10’s bid to improve education under Tony Blair. His target was continued by subsequent governments and only officially abandoned by the Conservatives last year.
But critics have argued that it encouraged an unhealthy focus on higher education which led to a proliferation of pointless "Mickey Mouse" degrees and lured undergraduates into racking up large debts without a meaningful increase in their salary prospects.
Speaking to The Telegraph in the wake of record A-level grade inflation this week, Euan Blair said: “When you look at the 50pc target, the belief was the more people go to university, the more people can access great opportunities, the more we would transition people fairly from full time education to full time employment. It has not worked out that way.”
Share of top grades over time
“A pretty stark statistic is only 4pc of those on free school meals make it to a Russell Group university. Lots of students [end up] in jobs deemed to be low skilled that would not need a degree in the first place.
“It is right there is a change, and that change has been talked about in terms of saying: ‘let’s not have an artificial target for how many people go to university’, let’s help people figure out from a plethora of options what is in their best interests.”
Asked if his father would agree, the 37-year-old said: “He does. He’s massively supportive of what we are doing, that will not surprise you.”
Tony Blair’s most recent comments on the policy suggested that he continues to support it.
This summer he set out an Education 2030 plan in conjunction with Lord Adonis, one of his former ministers, calling for even more pupils to go to university and suggesting that dozens of new campuses should open in deprived towns.
Tony Blair's landmark target for half of school leavers to attend university was finally reached in 2019
Credit: Alain BENAINOUS/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
The pair said that GDP improved by £1,200 per person for every 1.5pc of people attending university.
Writing in a paper last month for the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, Mr Blair said the 50pc goal remained “as controversial as it was correct and essential”, adding it would be “wrong to soft peddle” on that goal.
Euan Blair is the founder of Multiverse, a start-up that works with the world’s largest technology companies to help them recruit apprentices straight out of school.
He said: “What we are saying to people is there are lots of people applying to university, a significant number are applying simply because they think it is the thing they are supposed to do and that is the route they have heard about through teachers or read about in the media.
“There is an incredible route through an apprenticeship to some of the world’s best companies and some of the world’s best tech start-ups.”
Tony Blair has lent his support to the idea of boosting apprenticeships, as well as calling for the UK to go even further in promoting higher education.
Alongside Lord Adonis, he wrote: “We need pathways to careers and prosperity as strong for those who don’t go to university as for those who do – ‘the other 50pc’ as they are sometimes called – and this should be a key ambition for the next decade.”
Euan Blair said he believes that schools must do more to advertise how many students go on to take apprenticeships and teachers needed to champion them as much as university.
He said: “One problem is teachers do not have enough resources to talk about apprenticeships.”
School league tables should be modernised to give weight to students taking on apprenticeships, he added, rather than “what percentage went to a Russell Group university”.