John Humphrys: What future for young folk?

May 31, 2024, 2:23 PM GMT+0

You know the general election is not exactly setting the nation on fire when the BBC leads its main radio news bulletin on day two of the campaign with the shattering headline: “Sir Keir Starmer has urged his followers to vote Labour”. In a competition to produce the most boringly predictable piece of election news this must surely have taken gold.

If the polling figures are to be believed it’s not as though Starmer’s followers need much urging. It seems the nation has pretty much made up its mind. And if Starmer lies awake at night he’s more likely to be worrying about the size of his victory rather than the outcome, which might explain why he seems not to be anxious to make headlines with every passing day.

Not so Rishi Sunak. He needs the headlines like a drowning man needs a life belt. And this past week he got them. Whether they will deliver votes remains to be seen but what they have done is ignite a debate that seems to divide the nation: a pledge that if the Tories are returned to power they will set about restoring some form of national service.

That promise (or, if you prefer, that threat) was followed by another aimed directly at young people. A future Conservative government would scrap one in eight university degree places: the so-called “Mickey Mouse” courses. Sunak accused the guilty universities of “ripping off young people” by offering degree places that do not increase their long-term earnings potential. The money saved would be spent on providing an extra 100,000 apprenticeships.

But this is about more than wasting money, says Sunak. It’s about wasting the lives of young people. Too many of them are devoting the most important years of their lives to an education for which they are entirely unsuited. As for some form of national service, he says, all young people are missing out on something that would not only enrich their own lives and from which the entire nation will ultimately benefit.

Is he right? Are we simultaneously betraying vast numbers of young people and denying the nation what they have to offer – whether it’s pointless university degrees or, indeed, some form of national service?

Let’s look at the so-called Mickey Mouse degrees first: Sunak’s pledge to scrap 130,000 university places . That’s about one in eight degree places which are deemed to bring no material benefits to the students in terms of getting a decent job. Indeed, the figures suggest that one in five graduates would have been better off if they hadn’t gone to university, and one in three are in jobs that do not require a degree. As for the student loans, for every £4 they borrow, only £1 is ever repaid.

In other words, the taxpayer would have been much better off if they’d never gone to university in the first place and so would the students themselves. As Sunak put it: “Improving education is the closest thing we have to a silver bullet for boosting life chances so it’s not fair that some university courses are ripping young people off,” he said. By the end of the decade, he said, the cost of “educating” them will have reached £910 million. The money saved would be used to pay for many more apprentices and incentivise universities to create new courses that support them.

The government has already ordered the Office for Students to crack down on courses that are selling what has been described as “false dreams”. Sceptics say we have known about those “dreams” for many years, if not decades, and ask why it has taken so long to deal with them.

The universities’ defenders argue that the value of a university education should not be measured purely on its financial outcomes. They say it’s hard – if not impossible – to put a price on the experience. But the reaction from Sunak’s supporters has been broadly positive. Not so the pledge of a return to some form of national service.

One of Sunak’s own ministers, Steve Baker, dismissed it as a plan to force teenagers to sign up to a one-year military placement or spend a weekend of each month volunteering and said it was drawn up by political advisers and “sprung on” Tory MPs and candidates. In other words: “Don’t blame us guv!” And another Tory minister, Andrew Murrison, said that it risked harming morale in the military.

But other ministers were anxious to make it clear that there was no prospect of parents being fined if their teenage children refused to “sign up”. When one foreign office minister, Anne-Marie Trevelyan, refused to rule that out she was slapped down by more senior colleagues. Sir Keir Starmer mocked the plans for what he described as a “teenage dad’s army” that had been “reached for in desperation by a party that’s flailing around”.

The former party leader William Hague took a column in The Times to spell out his own approval and pour scorn on Starmer’s dismissal. He pointed out that Sweden has just restored mandatory civic duty for 18-year-olds, with a minority doing military service and most carrying out civilian skills, such as maintaining essential infrastructure in a crisis. And Norway, he wrote, has maintained a competitive national service system for many years.

He said: “The 18-year-olds who serve in their armed forces are not a ‘teenage army’ but become a trained reserve in their twenties and thirties, able to expand the army several times over when needed. If 30,000 young British people served for 12 months of training each year, there would be up to 300,000 of them with military skills after a decade... A flow of personnel through the armed forces who then resume education and training elsewhere could help address important skills shortages.”

Hague quoted a review of armed forces careers last year which pointed out that “the rising demand for skills is already not being met in some key areas, including cyber, engineering, nuclear, digital, logistics, aviation and medical... Being able to draw on more individuals who fill those gaps in times of national danger would be an undoubted military asset. The argument that national service takes away military resources is therefore very short-term thinking; in the longer term the potential resources would be greatly enhanced.”

Polly Toynbee in the Guardian was not impressed. She described the notion as so “decrepit that those old Sir Bufton Tuftons who used to rise in the Commons to declare national service had made them the fine men they were today are long retired and mostly dead, six decades after conscription ended in the UK. It’s that never-ending Tory cry of youth hate: cut their hair, square-bash some discipline into them, bring back the lash!”

And she rubbished the Tory claim that “national service will play an important role in making sure young people not in education, employment, or training, and young people who are disproportionately represented in the criminal justice system, especially for gang and knife crime, are diverted away from lives of unemployment and crime.”

Here’s what Toynbee made of that: “Before the generals freak out at becoming commandants of young offender institutions, see the small print. It suggests no riff-raff are needed, with 18-year-olds free to apply for: ‘a competitive, full-time military commission over 12 months in the armed forces or UK cyber defence, where young people will learn and take part in logistics, cybersecurity, procurement or civil response operations. This placement will be selective, so that our world-leading armed forces recruit and train the brightest and best.”

In reality, she claims, “It may help fill the ranks of the shrunken army, the smallest since Napoleon’s time, but old military wisdom says one volunteer is worth 10 pressed men.

“Military recruits under Rishi Sunak’s new national service are likely to be paid a “stipend”, not a normal wage, but the rest will presumably be unpaid, building flood defences as if on community punishment or filling in for threadbare NHS, fire, police and care services. Did they ask charities, police or the NHS if they have the staff to supervise hundreds of thousands of recalcitrants for 25 compulsory weekends a year?”

And Toynbee had her own long list of proposals for what a new government should do. It should reinstate the funding for Connexions, the careers advice service for teenagers; open closed youth centres; rehire sacked youth workers; restart Sure Start; rejoin Erasmus, the EU programme that supports education and training for young people; give back education maintenance allowances that kept the poorest sixth-formers in colleges and schools, and bring back all the lost apprenticeships.

There’s more, she claims, on Labour’s to-do list but she points out that what young people lack is political muscle. If you can’t vote you don’t count. But that’s something that Labour promises to change with their pledge to give the vote to 16 year-olds.

So where do you stand on all this? Should the voting age be lowered? Should national service make a comeback? Do we need many more apprenticeships and fewer university places?

In more general terms, are too many people getting a raw deal? Are we oldies misleading them into thinking a university degree is the key to a prosperous future when they might be better off in every sense if they trained as a plumber? And might we all benefit if we had some form of national service?

Let us know.

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