Lisa Townsend: The police don’t need degrees to know how to keep the public safe

31 May

Much has been made – quite rightly – of the Government’s ambition to recruit and train 20,000 extra police officers and progress towards the target has been impressive.  Every time I visit a local police station here in Surrey I meet enthusiastic young people in their smart new uniforms. They are eager to head back onto the streets and keen to learn from those around them, and I am impressed by their duty to protecting the public and their energy.

Despite years of negative stories about policing, they to a person possess a sterling commitment to public service.  That young people are still attracted to policing in their thousands is a testament to a generation who are often written off as apathetic or material.

What makes a good police officer?  Crimes and those who commit them have seen significant changes in recent decades, but the core features of what it takes to be a good officer have not changed all that much.  Empathy, good communication skills – including an ability to listen as well as talk – honesty and integrity, a cool head in a crisis.  These are the skills common to all good officers, of every rank, and none of that is controversial.

But where I do depart from the now-accepted ‘wisdom’ is that I don’t believe that those wishing to enter policing must have, or should as quickly as possible in their training, an academic degree.

It is perfectly possible to be an excellent – or outstanding – police officer without being a member of the 50 percent who now attend university.  After two law degrees, I learnt PACE (the Police and Criminal Evidence Act, the legislative framework behind much of policing powers) at bar school. Yet officers who left school at 16 would run rings around me in their understanding of the law.

Most of those I studied with could only dream of being as effective as officers I’ve witnessed dealing with violent situations or domestic abuse call-outs. And it is a truth known universally that there are some skills and knowledge that you just can’t teach.

I also worry about what we are asking of new recruits: to do the job of being a neighbourhood officer while also studying for a degree.  For most young people, they will cope.  Many are living at home with mum and dad, and we’ve all had periods in our careers where our social life has had to temporarily take the back seat.

But at a time when policing is desperately trying to look more like the public we protect, with everything from ethnic, age and ‘neuro-diversity’ supposedly important, what does it say to those with young families or other caring responsibilities about what we truly value in our team?  What does it say to those leaving the army without a degree who have so much they can contribute to policing?

My concern isn’t just for policing, but for the message we are sending more widely.  The more we see traditional, non-degree professions (policing, nursing, childcare) insist upon a higher academic qualification, the more it cements in public’s mind that a degree is the only way. Our young people get the natural impression that vocational qualifications and careers are not worthwhile.

Ministers can go on until they’re blue in the face about the importance of parity of esteem between academic and vocational education. Yet that won’t make a blind bit of difference if those across the Cabinet table are insisting a degree is the only way route to a successful career as such a common or garden career as policing.

Thankfully, we are seeing some forces starting to push back against the College of Policing’s idea of a ‘professional’ police service.  They did not suggest abandoning the degree route, since it will be the best one for some applicants. Instead, they want to return to a process that allows for differing entry pathways, to reflect the diversity of people we want to see in policing.  This should be the norm, not the exception.

Policing careers offer so much and are enormously varied.  From dog handlers to digital fraud teams, armed response to family liaison, it isn’t one size fits all. So nor should its entry requirements be.  A very wise chief constable said to me recently that yes, he wanted architects, but what he really needed were brickies. We are in danger of having great plans and no one to build them.

Tony Blair’s 1999 target of wanting to send half of all school leavers to university was wrong then, and it is wrong now.  Successive Conservative ministers have done a fantastic job of raising the level of further education. They have ensured it is better funded, with more options and taken more seriously. They are, along with the young people who enter FE, to be applauded and encouraged.

It is fundamentally Tory to want to see everyone achieve their potential, but not to tell them how to do it. That is the case for a career in policing as much as any other.

Nick Maughan: Ministers must to more to encourage vocational alternatives to university

9 Oct

Nick Maughan is an investor and philanthropist.

Back in July, the Prime Minister evoked in a speech the importance of practical and vocational education to “transform people’s lives”. But can the Government walk the walk?

The UK has long rested on the laurels of its golden triangle universities of Oxford-London-Cambridge, and this year, record numbers of students have chosen to attend universities across the country. Compared to last year, close to ten per cent more students have secured places in higher education institutions.

One can easily understand how the pandemic has contributed to the increase. University degrees provide students with a sense of comfort, a safety net that is very much needed during these uncertain times.

While it is in many ways laudable to see so many young adults eager to embark on academic journeys, we must ensure that we are equally encouraging of those who choose the route of practical training. As more young people choose to attend university, fewer are likely to consider vocational training as an equally rewarding option.

The stigma surrounding vocational training sadly pre-existed the pandemic, but it is likely to be exacerbated by the heightened sense of insecurity amongst young people caused by their disrupted educations.

There continues to be a strong divide between the North of England and London, with a 26 per cent increase of London pupils attending universities (compared with 2012’s numbers), while numbers of pupils attending university from deprived areas such as the North East have fallen. This sharp distinction tells us that more advantaged young people in this country still see academia as the only viable option for advancement. This is not necessarily a sustainable or desirable state of affairs.

In response to the increase in applications, the Russell Group of universities have been sending more contextual offers to pupils attending poorly performing schools in deprived areas, lowering top universities’ entry requirements to recognise the difficulties experienced by some. However, what we also need is the promotion of alternative qualifications for all pupils.

The Higher National Diploma, for example, offers work-oriented two-year degrees, in which students learn professional skills that are easily transferable. As of today, and despite the diploma being recognised as a successful route to many high-tech industries, less than ten per cent young adults hold the qualification.

In comparison, some of our European neighbours achieve higher employment rates with fewer employees coming from academia. In Germany for example, more than 20 per cent of the working population went through vocational routes. Professional training in England is still too often seen as the poor cousin of academic qualifications. Our attitude to these programmes needs to change.

The public policy think tank Pivotal conducted a survey that showed that close to 70 per cent of our sixth form pupils were unaware of many growing industries in this country that are hiring as we speak. The reason more of our young people don’t apply for jobs as vehemently as they apply for university courses is that we’ve instilled in them the dogma that success is achieved through school grades and degree classifications. This belief that has been fostered by parents, teachers and career advisors for decades.

An immediate solution would be to have in-school career advisors in as many schools as possible. Indeed, Pivotal’s survey also showed that 70 per cent of teachers find they have insufficient time to give their pupils career advice. But there is much more we could do. Professionals should be regularly invited to interact with young students, especially in the state sector, and discuss career opportunities inside and outside the traditional paths. This would require a joint effort from both government and the private sector, as well as charities, but would be beneficial to all.

Getting an Honours degree can be an exciting journey, but it is a pricey one, and for most it is a route which will take years to recover from financially. The costs saved by going down the vocational route can represent a huge advantage to young people which we should communicate to them more frankly.

At BoxWise, a non-profit social enterprise centred around boxing lessons recently launched by my foundation, we help disadvantaged young adults to upskill and embark on vocational training courses. I am a firm believer that all teenagers need tailored advice in order to make the right decisions at the right time. For some, reading philosophy will be the most suitable option. For others, it is a culinary training that will help them thrive and excel at something different from what they were taught at school.

After 18 months in the pandemic, the hospitality industry, for example, has been deserted by all kinds of potential applicants. Nonetheless, with services now opening again, restaurants and hotels are looking for young adults to start working. Because apprenticeships nurture long and stable careers, the young people training now are likely to be the leaders of the hospitality industry in future years.

Promoting vocational careers to all is also crucial for the UK’s employment figures. The country needs a technical and manual workforce as much as it needs academically minded people. The stigma attached to apprenticeships must be challenged with well-informed advice coming from professionals as well as teachers, requiring an effort from both the Government and private sector.

Everyone can find their place in the jobs market, but we must let young people know their options are broader than they have been taught to think.

Daniel Hannan: We cannot allow our solution to the problem of illiberalism depart from liberal principles

26 May

Lord Hannan of Kingsclere is a Conservative peer, writer and columnist. He was a Conservative MEP from 1999 to 2020, and is now President of the Initiative for Free Trade.

Every time you think woke students can’t get any more pompous, risible or absurd, they surpass themselves. The latest madness is a campaign by the “Birkbeck Students Anti-Racism Network” to remove Eric Kaufmann from his position at their college. Dr Kaufmann is one of the most original and brilliant political scientists of our age. He writes a great deal about identity issues, basing his work on original research and polling rather than on woke pieties.

His very rigour enrages his detractors. A lengthy charge-sheet is levelled against the Vancouverite professor, much of it in what Orwell called duckspeak: “He’s indistinguishable from the institutions that create, legitimise and perpetuate the ways of thinking that ultimately serve to install and preserve capitalism and colonialism alongside the social systems that sustain it: the patriarchy and white supremacy…”

Among other things, Kaufman has apparently committed the abominable sin of being “associated with Quillette, UnHerd, Spiked and many other far-right & bigoted magazines”. He is, hilariously, accused of being a white supremacist – I say “hilariously” because Kaufmann is of mixed Chinese, Latino and Jewish heritage. Worst of all, he is apparently engaged in “cancelling ‘cancel culture’.”

Such, I suppose, is the logical end-point of woke. Simply to argue against cancel culture is now considered grounds for cancellation. True, these Birkbeck blockheads are outliers; but less so than they would have been five years ago – even two years ago. Each stunt of this kind ends up dragging the centre of gravity further towards what would until recently have been almost universally seen as a lunatic fringe.

A straightforward vindication, you might think, of the Government’s plan to appoint a campus free speech tsar. Kaufmann himself has written on this website in support of government intervention, arguing that legislation will alter behaviour, as happened with the seat-belt law.

We should be careful, though, that our solution to the problem of illiberalism does not itself depart from liberal principles. Free association, like free speech, is a fundamental right. University societies are entitled to disinvite speakers. They can do so in a self-righteous, inconsistent and discourteous way without trampling on anyone’s freedoms. What they can’t do – or at least shouldn’t be allowed to do without sanctions – is to disrupt other people’s meetings, or use the threat of physical force to keep a speaker away.

The distinction matters. Legislation aimed at punishing universities that have deplatformed speakers is, as Steve Davies argued in a paper published yesterday by the Institute of Economic Affairs “an intrusion of political power into the internal affairs of a private body and would be rightly resisted if it were attempted elsewhere.

The real problem, as Dr Davies correctly points out, is the lack of ideological diversity, not only on campus but in a number of graduate professions. The solution lies in lowering barriers to entry so as to encourage heterodoxy rather than yet more state bans.

That, though, is a difficult argument to make in the current climate. Wokery undoubtedly provokes an angry response. But that response is more often Trumpian than libertarian. Bans are met with counterbans, cancellations with more cancellations. You got one of ours sacked? Well we’ve dug up something silly that one of yours once said!

As the culture war becomes more vicious, we lose sight of what ought to be the elemental precepts of a liberal society: free contract, free expression, free association. A few months ago, I wrote a ConHome column making the basic case for liberty and property. Businesses, I wrote, should not be compelled to take customers. A restaurant should be allowed to insist that you wear a tie, a hotel to refuse to cater to children, Twitter to reject Donald Trump, Amazon to refuse to host Parler, a cruise ship to demand proof of vaccination. Whether they were wise to exercise these rights was a different issue; but our presumption should be in favour of freedom.

That case would once have gone almost without saying on the Centre-Right. Not any more. The comment section was filled with angry screeds, several of them from people who think of themselves as mainstream conservatives, complaining that I had gone over to the other side.

As so often, we are being pulled by American cultural currents. Republican state administrations have taken to banning vaccine passports – that is, making it illegal for private firms to set their own conditions on who can use their facilities. As David Frum points out, the tendency predates the Coronavirus: Oklahoma Republicans had already passed a law that made it a criminal offence for a company to ban employees from taking firearms into its parking lot.

To argue that, just as the state should not impose vaccine passports, neither should it prevent private companies from requiring tests, is an increasingly lonely business. To believe that people should have free speech, but others should be under no compulsion to give them a platform, is at odds with the authoritarian mood of the time. To aver that students have every right to be wrong and rude, and even to object to having teachers from outside the hard Left, but that universities should not indulge their nonsense, is nowadays an eccentric position. Liberalism is in retreat. No one cares about process when they happen to favour a particular outcome.

Yet take those precepts away and everything we understand by a free society – fixed rules rather than arbitrary rulings, the ability to innovate and invest without fear of confiscation, the freedom to speak your mind without being blacklisted, East Germany-style – suddenly becomes a lot more precarious. There was a time when conservatives understood that.

The Peter Pan-demic

17 Oct

Over the last decade, there’s been a recurring question put to our leaders. That is, “what about young people’s future?” It is a line that has seemed cynical at times; used by anti-Brexit groups, for instance, to encourage support for overturning the EU referendum result. More recently it became the favourite among climate change activists. “The eyes of all future generations are upon you”, Greta Thunberg famously told world leaders at the United Nations climate action summit.

And yet, during the pandemic, it is a question that has been curiously absent – right around the time it is most needed. What is going to happen to the young with our Coronavirus policies, after all? I don’t think it’s selfish to wonder this; young people know that the crisis has presented leaders with impossible choices; they’re prepared to take on the huge tax bill coming, and they are deeply concerned about protecting their elders, whatever the newspapers suggest. Even so, they are not immune to the toll of this virus, and need to know that there is some hope for them at the end.

I don’t count myself as young, incidentally, as I’m 31 and going steadily grey. But I’m young-ish – a millennial, and I wonder about my future too. The Government’s recent Tier 2 restrictions, which – like many others – I am subjected to from today, has left me with deeper concerns than whether I’ll be able to meet friends. To me, it signals the continuation of what could best be described as “Economic Neverland”. Once my generation had aspirations for homes, families and the rest, but alongside the double whammy of 2008’s financial crisis, it feels that we are unable to grow up.

This crisis has, in many ways, been a “Peter Pan-demic”, if I may. It’s devastating for everyone. But we are consigning multiple generations to not being able to reach the markers of adulthood.

The first sign has been housing. Forget the picket fence, many people are moving back home with mum and dad. I know because I was one of them (lucky enough to be able to self-isolate first). My studio flat would have been intolerable over lockdown, and several friends made the same decision. Others are now back because they’ve lost their job or had to take a pay cut. No matter how much you love home, this is not the direction life is meant to go in.

Then there are the other challenges. I’ve been sad to watch friends cancel weddings this year, and the idea of having babies is almost certainly out of the question (even though many of us are in the pressing decade of our thirties). Conservatives have made massive advances in changing these facts – the housing algorithm was a very positive sign that MPs want to better the system – and yet the virus is a case of one step forward, two steps back.

I can only write this from a millennial perspective, but 16-24 year olds have been one of the worst affected groups; the most hit by job losses, as the number of people made redundant in the UK has risen to the fastest rate on record. Many cannot enjoy a full university experience, with Zoom replacing face-to-face teaching and Fresher’s Week now on hold for the foreseeable future. And it doesn’t bear thinking about what lies ahead for children, caught in the middle of school reopenings, which have increasingly become a political football.

Quite simply, I wouldn’t mind a Thunberg of the Coronavirus crisis – to remind leaders that “the eyes of all future generations are upon you.” Yes, the priority is to navigate the present – but our sleep-deprived politicians also have a duty to cast their minds to the decades ahead; to think about the sustainability of their policies, and what’s being asked of existing generations, and of those to come. From young people’s job security, to knowing they can settle down, there must be a way out of Neverland eventually.

Emily Carver: The Higher Education dream has been shattered. Could Covid provide the catalyst for change?

15 Aug

Emily Carver is Media Manager at the Institute of Economic Affairs.

During the 1999 Labour Party Conference, Tony Blair pledged to send 50 per cent of young adults to university “within the next century”. His supporters praised his ambition, while many others simply questioned why. Two decades later, the target has been hit, but the mountain of evidence shows that the goal has neither boosted social mobility nor led to higher productivity.

The crude assumption was this: if 50 per cent of young people go to university, 50 per cent of young people will later secure high-paid, high-status jobs. Perhaps to the bemusement of his father, Blair’s son, tech entrepreneur Euan, has devoted significant time and energy to refuting this falsehood.

In an essay for Policy Exchange, Euan denounced the UK’s “obsession” with sending so many school leavers to university. He argued it left graduates ill-equipped, in terms of knowledge and skills, to be successful in the world of work. His concerns were not unfounded.

As the Institute of Economics Affairs’ Dr Stephen Davies points out in his new paper To a Radical Degree, statistics from the ONS show that close to a third of graduates are now “overqualified” for their job, with graduates in arts and humanities most likely to be “under-using” their education. 

Apart from those taking vocational subjects, such as medicine or engineering, in over 90 per cent of cases, graduates will use little of what they’ve learned at university in their subsequent employment and will instead learn the skills they need on the job. 

The results have been disastrous. We have a dearth of skills in the labour market, a generation saddled with debt, and a higher education (HE) sector on the brink of collapse. The fundamental issue is the “good” universities are selling.

These days, the attainment of a degree certificate largely acts as a signal to an employer that you have achieved a certain level of capability. Over the years, the value of that signal inevitably has diminished as a result of oversupply and inflation in qualification levels, while productivity growth figures remain stagnant.

But this signal is so entrenched, and employers so heavily reliant on it, that every year thousands still apply to HE institutions, many for courses that will add very little value.

Covid-19 has exposed a sector in deep trouble and decision-makers are waking up to the need to radically overhaul of the system.

Even before the crisis, many institutions were in a precarious financial position. In 2018, it was reported the number of universities and colleges in England running a deficit jumped by almost 70 per cent. With Chinese students now the second largest source of income for universities, the pandemic has put the future of many institutions in jeopardy.

There is a desperate need to diversify our HE system away from the “one-size-fits-all” approach that has dominated for so many years. We need to return to a varied system in terms of the type of institutions and ways of teaching, with far more of an emphasis on vocations and learning a trade. The Treasury has made clear that any bailout of the sector will be conditional on reform, including removing “mickey mouse” courses that add little to no value. This is a step in the right direction.

With A-Level results out this week and many missing out on their preferred university, the internet is awash with adverts for clearing spaces. It is a sad state of affairs that many of these young people will find out the hard way that the degree they’re investing in may not be worth the paper it’s written on.

Our HE system is badly letting down young people. Fixing it will be no small feat, but the Covid crisis could at least be a catalyst for much-need change.

Alexander Woolf: My economic views are mainstream – but have been almost impossible to air at Britain’s universities

2 Aug

Alexander Woolf is a PhD researcher in political economy and a former parliamentary assistant. 

During my years as an undergraduate politics student, I gradually learnt how writing assignments from a free market perspective was like asking to be failed. By my final year, I acquiesced to writing through a socialist lens and I received high Firsts every time.

The fact that I had to pretend to be somebody else in order to succeed frustrated me and violated every belief I had about individuality and meritocracy. At that moment, I decided that my career goal would be to enter academia and teach political science objectively, helping students to understand not just the few flaws of capitalism but also the many benefits. Like today’s political philosophers and political economists, I would continue to teach Marx, but I would also teach Hayek, Mises, Smith and Rothbard. After all, what is education when it is only half-taught?

After finishing my degree and my Masters, and gaining a few years’ experience of working in Parliament, I was accepted on to a PhD course, the final step towards entering the academic world. Finding a British university as a Conservative, libertarian, or classical liberal is no easy feat. I was told by every like-minded scholar I encountered to apply for King’s College in London or cross the Atlantic to attend George Mason University in Virginia. Anywhere else was a waste of my time.

This seemed strange to me. My views about the economy are mainstream among economists and businesses, who champion a system of limited government involvement. My views about wider issues are also shared by the majority of British voters, who have elected Conservative governments for the last decade – and even delivered an unexpected Brexit result. However, I was told that people like me are unwelcome in the vast majority of political science departments in this country.

Despite being driven for so many years to help correct the ideological bias in our universities, I still hadn’t fully grasped the gravity of this problem. As soon as I started my PhD, I grabbed the first opportunity to teach by becoming a seminar tutor. I was given classes in a module called “The Politics of Global Capitalism”. Despite the objective title of this class, however, I soon learnt that the lecturer in charge of the module is a proud Marxist. In our introductory meeting, the lecturer joked how he hoped the students would “throw their iPhones out the window and raise the red flag” by the end of the semester.

In hindsight, I should have recognised the red flag that was raised by his ideological comments and dropped the class, but this just made me more determined. And since Tory students are highly unlikely to secure funding from the ESRC funding council, I frankly needed the money.

I was pleasantly surprised during my months of teaching subjects how mature, rational and open-minded the students can be. However, my Marxist class had two self-confessed communist students who were problematic, to say the least. Other students would confide in me that they felt uncomfortable getting involved in discussions because these students would shout people down, scoff and laugh at them, or call them stupid.

During one particular rant about how “we” should raid businesses and seize their profits, before kicking Jeff Bezos out of the country (for what reason, I’m still unsure), I decided to probe with some intellectual questions. What signals would it send to other businesses? What would happen to our economy when we’re seen as a volatile place to invest? I received no response.

Within one week, I was informed that two students had complained about me for being biased, and since the lecturer had let me teach on the assumption that I was also a socialist, I was advised to drop the class. As with the 2011 riots and the militant tactics of Momentum, the theme is clear: when socialists inevitably lose an intellectual or political debate, they turn nasty.

However, two 18-year olds aren’t the problem here; the responsibility lays with our educational institutions. Students learn what they are taught, and if they are only taught by socialists, then we can’t be surprised when they refuse to tolerate a conservative teacher.

Universities were founded as institutions for creating new ideas and spreading knowledge, but our social science faculties peddle propaganda and incite young people with their own prejudices. My university department, for example, has a research centre dedicated to furthering “public understanding of politics”, an important and admirable task. The fact that this centre is named after a socialist, however, raises serious questions about whose understanding is being publicised.

Approaching the final year of my PhD, my desire to teach has evaporated and I have turned down offers to tutor again. I came to realise that the lack of “people like me” in academia stems from the fact those people don’t want to work in the modern-day university; ones that pride themselves as being “safe spaces”, but safe spaces for whom, when evil, climate-destroying Tories are not welcome? Why would anybody subject themselves to this kind of work environment?

There is cause for conservatives to be concerned about the future of voting in this country. Yes, it’s a blessing that a centre-left Keir Starmer is Britain’s current worst-case scenario, considering his predecessor. However, we cannot forget the perplexing irony that tech-savvy millennials were captured so easily by Corbyn’s 1970s solutions to modern world problems.

The next generation of voters won’t know how socialism worked out in Russia, China, North Korea, Venezuela, or Cuba. They won’t understand that government bureaucrats can’t design a smartphone to rival the iPhone. They won’t realise that arbitrarily punishing businesses might mean an end to the next-day deliveries of their favourite products, forty-minute deliveries of their favourite restaurant food, or instant streaming of their favourite TV shows.

Economic knowledge is important in an advanced economy, and this knowledge needs to be based on facts rather than myths or ideological hyperbole. If we want to ensure that the next Jeremy Corbyn suffers the same fate as the last, it is vital that we ask questions of our schools, colleges, and universities about the accuracy and objectivity of their lessons and lectures on issues of citizenship. Opponents will say that this threatens independent science, but what I have seen both as a politics student and teacher is far from science.