From all-female shortlists to choose new parliamentary candidates to the need for boardroom equality, generally whenever quotas are mentioned it’s to do with the need for a more female bias.
However, yesterday, Universities Minister David Willetts identified a new group in need of a leg up – white, working-class boys. In fact he went further, suggesting that when it comes to university admissions they should be targeted in exactly the same way as ethnic minorities.
The call came in the wake of figures which showed the number of UK students applying to university had slumped for the second year in the row. Statistics published by UCAS showed in England alone applications have dropped by 6.5 per cent with 229,932 hoping to start degree courses in September and the decline is subject to a gender divide.
Just 30 per cent of male school leavers applied for courses beginning last autumn, compared with 40 per cent of females, but Mr Willietts’s plans to reverse what he described as a “shocking waste of talent” have been described by some as fundamentally flawed.
“I don’t believe in targeting specific groups, mainly because I don’t think it works,” says educational consultant Dr David George. A specialist in the teaching of gifted children he believes the Government is at least in part responsible for the lack of ambition among teenage boys. “When the coalition came to power one of the first things they did was axe the money which had been set aside to teach gifted children.
“I suppose they saw it as a luxury, but it’s not. If schools have the resources to teach exceptional pupils what you tend to find is that the education bar as a whole is raised – a rising tide lifts all boats, as they say.
“Of course there is only so much teachers and universities can do and parents have the greatest influence to bear on their own children. However, one of the schemes that went in the cut backs was called Excellence in the Cities. This didn’t just target working-class boys, but it reached out to comprehensive pupils as a whole. For those whose parents hadn’t gone to university it brought them into contact with academics, it made them aware of the courses available and of the opportunities a university education can bring. If the Government is really serious about harnessing the real talent in our schools then it really needs to rethink how it treats its brightest pupils.”
For years university was seen as a path to higher wages and a fast track to promotion. However, while latest figures showed that graduates still earn on average £12,000 a year more than those without degrees, the jobs market has shrunk and increased competition has seen many leave university only to face the prospect of long-term unemployment.
With most economic forecasts looking less than rosy, there are some wondering about the wisdom of encouraging more young people to go to university.
“I honestly believe that for the vast majority it is completely pointless,” says Simon Dolan, entrepreneur and author of How to Make Millions Without a Degree. “I think three years of further education fails to educate the masses about real life.
“Tuition fees have risen to an exorbitant rate and students are leaving university with huge financial debts to repay. Yet at the same time we are hearing of unprecedented levels of graduate unemployment – having been told a degree would make them irresistible to employers many are unable to find work.
“Personally, I would implore young school leavers to reconsider the hand-holding education system, to take the bull by the horns and perhaps look beyond the mindset of job dependency.
“There is a gaping budget deficit in the UK, but this could be remedied by addressing the country’s shortfall of entrepreneurship.”
Simon, who began selling cheese and eggs on a market stall laid the foundations of his own business when he began handling accounts and tax returns for small local firms. He now owns a string of accountancy and financial services firms which together boast a multi-million pound turnover.
“Resilience and self-belief are an entrepreneur’s most precious commodities. I am living proof that with a sizeable amount of tenacity, relentless commitment and a big idea we all have the power to create the tomorrow we want and run a successful business without a regressive three-year stint at university.”