David Willetts On The Benefits Of A University Education

sorting_hat09:37 Thursday 15th August 2013
BBC Radio Cambridgeshire

[A]NDIE HARPER: Record A-Level results are expected in the county today, with more students than ever getting straight As. While this is a cause for relief and celebration for youngsters and their families, does it ultimately devalue A-Levels, as even if they get top grades, they still aren’t guaranteed to get into the college they want to go to, or, more importantly, get a job at the end of it? Well earlier I put these points to the Universities Minister David Willetts. And first of all I asked him how the general situation was looking on the day the A-Level results were released. (TAPE)
DAVID WILLETTS: Well first of all we should congratulate young people on what they’ve achieved. They’ve worked very hard. And for me, sitting here at UCAS in Cheltenham, I can say it does look as if at this stage of the process, more people than ever before have got a place at university. And that’s very good news. Obviously it will pan out during the day, but what I’m hoping to see is more young people getting their first choice of university, because of the more flexible system we’ve now got here.
ANDIE HARPER: And what are application levels for university places like this year? Obviously there is now the issue of fees. So are you happy that there are still a huge number of students applying to go to university?
DAVID WILLETTS: It looks as if we’ve got the second highest rate of applications from young people to go to university on record. And that is because I’m sure they understand we all put in a great effort to communicating that nobody pays upfront to go to university. What happens is afterwards, if you’re in a well-paid job, you pay back through PAYE.  And I think that’s something that young people understand and it’s thank heavens all the evidence is that it’s not putting them off. In fact we’ve got the highest ever rate of applications from young people from lower income backgrounds. And that’s particularly good news.
ANDIE HARPER: You say you’re at UCAS. And obviously we hope that as many youngsters as possible got the grades that were required. But it has to be faced, a large number of them will be seeking university places from today onwards. It’s going to be busy at UCAS. They’ve had their problems overnight, have they not?
DAVID WILLETTS: Yes. They’re assuring me that the systems are working today, and obviously I’m here to observe what happens. But as of this moment, it does look as if the system is operating smoothly. And if a young person hasn’t got the grades that they were hoping for, then they can .. they should be in touch with their university that they’re trying to get to, and they can also phone UCAS here, where they can get advice, on 0871 4680468. And they shouldn’t give up. There is clearing, and clearing can work, can help people find places. And as I say it’s also worth a direct communication with the university you were hoping to get to.
ANDIE HARPER: On our breakfast programme earlier, some local students opened the envelopes and they did really well. They got A stars and As virtually across the board. Do you have any concern that so many youngsters get As and A stars these days that they’re perhaps not as valued as they once were? I mean, what’s next after an A star?
DAVID WILLETTS: This isn’t the day you know when young people have worked so hard and have got their A-levels, this isn’t the day for them to hear some politician saying that the A-levels aren’t worthwhile. The fact is what I see in colleges and universities is young people who do work very hard. And I’ve been a bit fed up with the way people dump on young people, and say somehow they’re not as qualified as they were before and all that. I think that what they achieve at college and university is excellent, and what we know from research, in fact we’re producing new research today, is employers value those sorts of qualifications, A-levels and particularly university qualifications. So if you go to university and graduate, you’re likely to earn a lot more over your working life on average, as well of course as it being worthwhile in many deeper senses as well, just broadening your horizons. So I think we should think of what young people are achieving in Britain today, and give them some pride.
ANDIE HARPER: It’s worth picking up the point you made there about going to university, and then hopefully guaranteeing yourself a good income. In yesterday’s programme we were talking about the number of youngsters who graduate, and then who can’t find any work, let alone work related to the degree that they’ve taken successfully. So we have to ask the question, is there any point in going to university these days if it doesn’t lead to a good job at the end of it?
DAVID WILLETTS: You can’t guarantee anyone a good job at the end of a university course. But I tell you on average it really does matter, really does improve your prospects of a good job , Indeed the research we’re putting out today from an independent economist estimates that it boosts people’s average earnings over their lives by up to £200,000. That is an enormous effect. And the rate of employment amongst graduates is significantly higher than the rate of employment amongst non-graduates. And a final point, even if you don’t first get the job that you want, and it’s tough getting into the jobs market for recent graduates, even if in the first six months or twelve months you haven’t quite got what you dream of, we’re talking here about a lifetime being changed. And the evidence is, as people work through, over the years after that, their chances of getting into high quality employment are much better if they’ve got a university degree.
ANDIE HARPER: Just finally, in today’s programme we are asking that if people failed their A-levels, didn’t get the grades they wanted, or indeed weren’t good enough to take A-levels in the first place, should they be regarded as failures? Because we put so much store on exams these days, don’t we, and passing, and going to the next level and the next level, that people could well feel a failure. Should they?
DAVID WILLETTS: You’re right, and that’s a very humane point. And they shouldn’t. because what all these systems are all about is just sorting us out, so that you get round pegs in round holes. And people have a whole range of different aptitudes, and some people have academic aptitudes, other people have different aptitudes. And we shouldn’t assume that there is simply one ranking of somehow what makes you more worthwhile as a human being. We’re not talking about that, we’re talking about how people can best use whatever aptitudes and skills they do have. And doing exams is just one of the ways in which modern societies sort that out. (LIVE)
ANDIE HARPER: That was the Universities Minister David Willetts who I spoke to earlier on this morning.