Flow of Ideas
Notes on the Confessions of John Denham

Glenn Rikowski, London, 26th August 2008


John Denham is the UK Secretary for Innovation, Universities and Skills. He is charged with ensuring that the government’s commitment to get 50% of young people into higher education (HE) is realised. He is still some way off, with HE participation rates stuck in the lower 40% range, though young women are doing better than young males for HE entry at 45% (Denham, 2008a, p.1). However, the 50% HE participation rate for young people has to be balanced against the 40% target rate for a national workforce with higher level skills and another target of 20 per cent of young people going into apprenticeships. Aiming for these targets in the context of a ‘credit crunch’, rising unemployment, tumbling house prices, high fuel and energy prices, increasing inflation, a plummeting pound and zero growth in the second quarter of 2008 (Strauss, 2008) is the background to a recent ‘confession’ of John Denham: that perhaps ‘some young people would be better off not going to university’ (Turner, 2008).

Widening ‘Widening’ Participation?

Until recently Denham appeared to be ultra-keen on widening participation. Traditionally, ‘widening participation’ has been viewed as trying to get ‘hard to reach’ groups into HE (e.g. working class and disadvantaged students). However, Denham cast the net much wider, arguing that ‘widening participation’ must be seen to relate to the sons and daughters of skilled workers. Indeed, Denham defined widening participation last April in a speech to the Higher Education Funding council for England (HEFCE) as a ‘majority issue’, relating as much to the offspring of ‘hotel managers, skilled tradesmen, the self-employed, the driving instructors, the class room assistants, the domestic engineers’ (Denham, 2008a, p.2), as those from ‘dysfunctional or at least non traditional family structures’ (Ibid.). He backed this up by expounding on the ‘University Challenge’ that he established last March – to have 20 new HE institutions providing up to 10,000 new places – aiming to fill geographical gaps in the HE system (Ibid.). A few days after his HEFCE speech, Denham talked about a scheme to bring in 30,000 new students who were in work and would study part-time degrees sponsored, partly funded and designed by employers (Wintour, 2008, p.1). He appeared to be backing up his words on widening participation with policies designed to address the issue, albeit to the main advantage of representatives of capital and business interests. Increases in future HE numbers would mostly be based on funding ‘business-focused degrees’ (Denham, 2008a, p.2).

Yet only a few days after his HEFCE speech Denham stated the following:

“First, of course, we do not promote higher education as the only option for young people. I’ve been very public in my support for expanding apprenticeships, and in making the promise that all young people – not just those who go to university – can be funded to continue their studies until they reach 25 or achieve a level 3 qualification. And it is true that some young people would have been better advised not to go to university. But none of this undermines the importance of higher education expansion or of Labour’s 50 per cent target” (Denham, 2008b, p.1 – my emphasis).

So, what kinds of people would ‘have been better advised not to go to university’? Denham is silent on this. I would imagine it would not be the sons and daughter of skilled and lower managerial workers whom he had in his sights as widening participation candidates a few days earlier. Part of the answer is clearly that:

“There are certainly young people who currently go to university who would have been better off on an Advanced Apprenticeship. We have been in danger of making it sound as if university is the only real aspiration” (Denham in Turner, 2008a).

Thus: Denham is balancing his 50% HE target against his 20% apprenticeship target and appears to be caught between conflicting targets. At least if more went onto the Advanced Apprenticeship they could be ‘caught later’ when they did their business-oriented degrees dominated by employers to meet his 40% ‘high skills in the workforce’ target.

David Turner hints that another part of the answer might be the ‘over-education’ problem highlighted by Francis Green and Yu Zhu that was reported in the Financial Times last year. This is where ‘one in three UK graduates is in non-graduate work’ (Turner, 2008). Green and Zhu also found that:

“…almost six in 10 art and design graduates were over-qualified for their occupations. Young people who have attended the less prestigious modern universities, which were polytechnics until 1992, are three times as likely to end up in non-graduate jobs as Oxbridge graduates. The wide variation in future earnings power has disillusioned some graduates” (Turner, 2008).

The notion that graduates should have only ‘graduate jobs’ is a functional and technicist approach to higher education. It assumes there should be a ‘fit’ between the levels of skill and knowledge developed at university and labour market destinations for graduates. It further assumes that work preparation provides the principal rationale for university study. Yet both these assumptions could be challenged. The first three jobs I had after graduating were a temporary residential social worker, a production worker in an engineering factory and a toilet cleaner in a plastics factory. Hardly ‘graduate jobs’, yet I learnt a lot from all of them, especially in terms of respecting those in low paid and low status jobs. Working in the engineering factory inspired my later PhD research – on the recruitment of engineering apprentices. As I argued on the basis of this empirical work: ‘The will of the worker is crucial’ (Rikowski, 1990, p.11) – both in the recruitment process and in the labour process. It is their ‘willingness’, or otherwise, to accept the ‘educational exchange’ they have experienced (see Rikowski, 1990, p.10) that challenges the ‘university for the labour market’ conception of higher education. Denham suspects ‘over-education’ will lead to graduates in non-graduate jobs causing unrest in the workplace and being living reminders to friends, siblings and others that perhaps university might not ‘pay off’ after all.

Finally, it could also be that Denham is concerned that his three targets will implode on the current recession as the ‘economy shuddered to a halt’ in the second quarter of 2008 (Cohen, Strauss and Guha, 2008). How will the new graduates that Denham seems to want find graduate-level jobs in a recession? Yet he plods on:

“If you look at the university system as a whole, and the way it engages with employers, it needs to be closer, more intensive, and part of what university offers has got to be tailored for the needs of a very different group of students and the people who are be going to be paying for these courses” (John Denham, in Wintour, 2008, p.2).

This is Denham’s justification for the 30,000 new university paces for ‘business-focussed’ degrees. Yet will UK companies want to part-finance such degrees during a recession that could go on for some years? How will UK business find places for increasing numbers of Advanced Apprenticeships that Denham presses on them?

Confusion and Consistency

No doubt Denham’s multi-target-driven HE policy is causing him to utter confused messages. But at least he is consistent in one respect in arguing that: “Expanding higher education is an economic imperative” (Denham, 2008b, p.2). In this he merely follows previous New Labour education ministers. However, his whole approach is based on reducing HE to labour power production. Notions of the intrinsic interest of studying a subject in depth, the pleasures of thinking, challenging the ideas of others, making a contribution to scholarship, self-development, community development and many other possible goals and purposes of university life get squeezed out of the discussion in Denham’s bleak HE ‘realism’.


Cohen, N., Strauss, D. & Guha, K. (2008) Economy grinds to a halt after 16 years, Financial Times, 23/24th August, p.1.

Denham, J. (2008a) Speech on Widening Participation to the HEFCE Conference, Warwick University, 8th April, online at: http://www.dius.gov.uk/speeches/denham_HEFCE_080408.html

Denham, J. (2008b) John Denham on why university participation should expand, The Times, 11th April, at TimesOnline: http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/life_and_style/education/article4507301.ece?openComment=true

Rikowski, G. (1990) The Recruitment Process and Labour Power, unpublished manuscript, Division ofHumanities & Modern Languages, Epping Forest College, Loughton, Essex, July. Online at: http://www.flowideas.co.uk/?page=articles&sub=Recruitment%20and%20Labour%20Power

Strauss, D. (2008) Pressure on Bank grows as economy contracts, Financial Times, 23/24th August, p.3.

Turner, D. (2008) Minister questions wisdom of university education, Financial Times, 11th August, p.2.

Wintour, P. (2008) Business to fund 30,000 new places in university shake-up, The Guardian, 14th April, online at: http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2008/apr/14/highereducation.uk1

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