David Lammy says England is failing those who don’t go to university

Former universities minister warns that the lack of vocational alternatives is entrenching inequality

England’s education system is failing young people who don’t go to university because there are too few quality routes for vocational education, says David Lammy, a Labour MP.

“If you are academic, [England] is still one of the best countries in which to be born, particularly if you’re born into a middle-class family and your parents have some means,” said Lammy, MP for Tottenham. “But if you’re not academic I think there are quite a lot of countries we would choose above our own.”

Lammy, who was minister for higher education in 2009-10, was interviewed by the Guardian’s education editor, Richard Adams, at an event on diversity and inclusion in universities in London, supported by HSBC.

Lammy said he has grown “more sceptical of the miracle of mass participation in universities than I was as a younger man”. While he wouldn’t want to return to just 8% of the population attending university, as would have been the case when he was born in 1972, he urged the government to pay more attention to vocational routes.

His focus has now turned towards young people who don’t go to university, partly because of the lack of opportunities for them, but also because they miss out on a transformative experience, Lammy said.

“I’m concerned about a young man growing up in Sunderland, how he relates to a young man growing up in Tottenham. I don’t think they do – it’s very hard to meet if they don’t go to university, big divides can be built there,” he said.

In his time as higher education minister, Lammy recalled “virtually anything I said would make it into the Guardian, but as apprenticeships minister, not so much”. He attributed this to the fact that middle-class parents don’t see vocational training as a valid option for their children. “We haven’t cracked it,” he said. “The old A-level gold standard remains.” He cited Germany, Australia and Finland as models to follow.

The government’s recently published Augar review of post-18 education and funding set out a new vision for England’s higher and further education system that, if implemented, would rebalance spending away from universities and towards vocational and technical education. The report described a disparity between the 50% of young people who go to university and the rest that “simply has to be addressed … [as] a matter of fairness and equity”.

Lammy added that young people graduating from university do not always secure as good jobs as they should. “You find that there are students from non-traditional backgrounds – of course some black and ethnic minorities but also many [white] working-class students – who get to university and […] this promise they were sold, isn’t quite what it says on the tin.”

As well as doing a disservice to people who are not interested in academic study, Lammy said that England is failing people from less privileged backgrounds. He said that most academic evidence supports the idea that “the young Somali girl” from inner city London who gets 3 As is brighter than her more privileged peers who get A and 2A*.

He noted that university access data reveals that geography is as much of a fault line as class or race. “Two London boroughs, Richmond and Barnet, send more kids to Oxbridge than the entirety of Sheffield, Leeds and Manchester combined,” he said. “That gets to the bigger questions in this country, circa 2019, behind Brexit […] about class and about geography [which] just continue to go largely unaddressed, and that is a scandal.”

Echoing Jeremy Corbyn’s recent vow to drop the language of social mobility in favour of a more egalitarian concept of social justice, Lammy said he is “far more interested in what is the good society, and how can everyone have a piece of that good society”, than in using universities to fast-track a handful of people from disadvantaged backgrounds to the elite.



By Rachel Hall