I sometimes wonder about death. Not in a morbid way, you understand. Just the practical stuff – how it will approach; who will be there; how long it might take. It’s part of being Catholic I think – we pray for a good death, so you naturally end up thinking what this might look like. Pain free, of course; comfortable, yes; surrounded by loved ones, absolutely.
My Grandad died before Christmas. It really affected me; I loved him dearly. I really did. And yet, I wasn’t there. I couldn’t be. I was far away, seeing to my own affairs.
Which is fine, right? We’re all busy these days, seeing to our own affairs. It’s natural. One cannot be blamed. No need to feel guilty.
But the niggling feeling wouldn’t go away – what if his vision of the end was like mine? What if he, too, wished to be surrounded by loved ones? Maybe that was precisely what he wanted, and yet I was elsewhere.
When Tony Blair offered his vision of a graduate workforce, he conceived of a society of the highly educated better able to service a shiny new graduate economy. The industrial sector had been decimated, leaving behind unemployment and despondency, and besides (the story went) fewer people wished to enter the old industries anyway.
The answer seemed obvious – send as many as possible to university, have them enter the job markets later as fully-fledged graduates able to undertake the jobs our newly globalised world shall demand.
But there was a problem: the graduate jobs both promised and required did not exist. Or certainly not in sufficient numbers. So to help provide that job market, as well as cater for the newly heightened expectations of a whole generation of young adults, we demanded young people get degrees to do the very things their Mums and Dads did without needing one – nursing, teaching, the civil service, law, industry – indeed jobs they were still successfully doing without having one.
The effect was to make university education necessary not for social mobility, but for mere social equilibrium.
As such, sales pitches placing university as the catalyst to improved health-and-wealth were a self-fulfilling promise, with those proclaiming the benefits the same as those tilting the odds against those who dissented from the cause.
And so, as collateral for a newly gentrified economy, our children were siphoned off into two camps according to which part of the economy they could serve, the graduates to one side and non-graduates to the other, with the latter prevented from entering the job markets of the former. And all for a fallacy: that one must be highly educated before one can become highly trained, and not being highly educated inhibits your ability to become highly trained.
This was simply untrue, and generations of successful non-graduates, historically given access to socially esteemed and well-paid jobs, trained within the workplace to high levels of expertise, attest to it. No, it was only ever graduates that insisted as many people as possible had to be graduates, the confirmation bias of a class policy makers holding up their own pathways as the pre-eminent model of progress.
In treading this path, we instituted a grad-class protectionism that has proven disastrous to the social fabric, engendering a values-chasm between graduate and non-graduate that looms large over our civic space. Every year, swathes of children are tacitly deemed failures by the social mobility narrative that shapes our politics and our schools, whilst the other half are told the true path to success is to leave behind – geographically, socially, morally – those networks of kith and kin in that place we call home. And to both, the unstated truth that those who fail to do so – those who are left behind – are but second-placers in the meritocratic footrace of life.
For a policy that was so self-consciously progressive, do note the irony – with degree education the gateway to the jobs markets, and since for most young people this meant a move away from home, so expansion of the university sector looked more and more like an embodiment of Tebbitian ‘onyerbike’ philosophy. Not because of a stress on the importance of work, but because of the quiet assumption that we should all accept the demand to be uprooted in order to access it.
It has been quite the project over the last few years, looking for ways to explain the social fracture encompassing the UK. Some put it down to austerity, others to ingrained economic inequality sapping morale and opportunity from swathes of the country, whilst others still think lack of education is the key factor – as if the non-graduate population haven’t been ill-treated enough without also being blamed for being angry that the tables have been so consistently been tilted against them
Still, for all one might offer an account of why change has happened, one thing surely cannot be denied: not everyone has benefitted from the changes that have accompanied the modernisation project.
In declaring that half of all youngsters must go to university, we were telling them they must leave – an injunction that hit all the more keenly in those areas long-neglected that could least afford such siphoning off of the young and talented. After all, whilst university was and is framed as a coming of age waypoint, a significant proportion of those who leave never return home, having built new lives and met new loves – and found access to new jobs – in a different place. This is of course fine, but we would do well to recognise it is not without consequence either, assisting decline in some areas rather than, as was promised, mitigating it.
As such, at those key points in life when we most need loving interdependence, when we realise we want loved ones close – often the dawn of new life and the end of it – families have found themselves scattered, unable to lean on one another for support, a geographical fracture all the more egregious amongst tight-knit working-class communities used to keeping extended family close.
This is the ultimate irony of social mobility: the more ‘successful’ your children have been, the more likely you are to be distant from them as old age approaches, and to feel the growing loneliness of that distance.
Of course, some areas have benefited from the huge expansion in graduates, as they were meant to – other areas have suffered, as they were always likely to. A graduate economy is well served by a graduate market, but not all places have graduate economies, or need graduate markets, certainly not whilst the wider investment that would generate these jobs remain absent.
And so, we have the fallout that has come from insisting children need to move away to get on. It has had real-life consequences. It has incentivised the uprooting of a generation of young adults, stretching family bonds over distances that even the conveniences of modern technology cannot entirely overcome. In so doing, it has proven as socially disruptive as any other factor – be that housing, or globalism, or mass immigration – that populists and demagogues insist is at the root of current social unrest.
In other words, whilst university education is a good thing, and many people have benefitted for having received it, it is time to acknowledge that there have nonetheless been macro-level negative impacts too.
Which is where my Grandad comes back into view. You see, to my great regret, I was not able to be there for his final moments. I was a beneficiary of the social mobility dream, I had left, and was now far away. And whilst I cannot honestly say I would trade my position now for what it might have otherwise been, I can say it feels like a high price to have paid to achieve it.
And it inevitably leaves me wondering if my own children, pursuing their own success in future, might be issued the same demand. What choice will they really have but to pay it?
At which point, those final moments of my own suddenly loom far lonelier than I pray for them to be.