University isn’t just about education but young people finding their way in the world - Jayne Dowle

Politics is often a broad-brush business, peppered with sweeping statements, but Labour Leader Sir Keir Starmer and Education Secretary Gillian Keegan trading blows over access to university demands close examination.

The row neatly – and painfully – illustrates a great divide. Should post-16 education be entirely vocational , or an opportunity for young people to take chances, develop and grow as individuals?

In a rare personal admission, Starmer, the former Director of Public Prosecutions, says that if he was a teenager today, he would not have been able to afford to leave his family home in suburban Surrey to study law at the University of Leeds.

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Comparing unfavourably the state of today’s economy with the early 1980s – and if you were alive in the early 1980s, you’ll understand that this is some comparison, given the unemployment and economic despair back then – he’s accusing the government of “holding back” ambition and talent and “choking off the dreams” of a generation.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer pictured during a visit to Worthing in West Sussex. PIC: Stefan Rousseau/PA WireLabour leader Sir Keir Starmer pictured during a visit to Worthing in West Sussex. PIC: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer pictured during a visit to Worthing in West Sussex. PIC: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire

“There wasn’t any spare money knocking around to fund me going to Leeds,” said this son of a toolmaker and a nurse. “I worked before I went and then got by on grants, as many young people do. I vividly remember carefully calculating rent, bills and food.”

His comments come in the midst of a furious stand-off with Mrs Keegan, who left school at 16, following her parents into office work. She’s been accused of arguing that traditional routes for young people into professional careers – a decent clutch of A-levels, followed by a three or four year undergraduate degree – aren’t necessarily worth the paper they’re written on, basically.

Mrs Keegan has been hastily defending her position after she attempted to reassure nervous sixth form students by saying that in 10 years’ time no-one will care what grades they got in their A-levels.

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Speaking to Sky News, she dug herself in deeper, adding: “As somebody who has worked for 30 years in business, that has employed hundreds if not thousands of people, I can honestly say I have never asked anybody for their A-level results or what grades they got.”

Perhaps this is because she never took A-levels herself, so cannot possibly imagine how freighted the results are for youngsters and parents.

Mrs Keegan took an apprenticeship after leaving a Catholic high school on Merseyside, the start of a long and impressive business career working for big companies, including a subsidiary of General Motors, which sponsored her to study business at Liverpool John Moores University.

She’s the same age as me – 55 – and at 60, Starmer just a few years older. I cannot believe that we’re still having this binary argument four decades after we all left school.

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When it comes to debating accessibility to higher education, quite rightly so, much of the attention has rested on widening opportunities at top universities for students from less-advantaged backgrounds.

What is less well-reported are the factors that influence decisions for young people from such backgrounds, perhaps with no history of relatives taking A-levels or degrees.

There is still an alarming lack of first-hand information for many young people, and a shocking lack of ambition in some sixth form colleges, who push their students into the nearest possible ‘local’ university without opening up the whole world of the UK’s 160-plus higher education destinations. My daughter, who sits her A-levels next year, was amazed to see some of the leavers with clutches of As and A*s looking no further than Sheffield.

Not that there's anything wrong at all with Sheffield’s two excellent universities; but there is a poverty of ambition, and also, real poverty. Many students choose to live at home now because they can’t afford to leave, plus the fear of thousands of pounds of debt (fees alone have soared since Labour introduced them) is terrifying. As I never tire of telling my kids, when I was 18, my friends - in the midst of pit closures in Barnsley, many with dads who were miners – went to universities far and wide, from Exeter to Edinburgh, emboldened by free tuition and adequate grants.

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As the daughter of a steelworker, and the first girl, to go to university in my own family, I totally understand what Starmer means when he says - “going to Leeds to study was a turning point for me” – because it wasn’t just about the degree he took, or the stellar career this set in motion, but the step away from home, the world opening up, a chance to set his own star alight. I felt it too, in 1986, on that very first day in Oxford when I started my own life-changing adventure.