DOMINIC SANDBROOK: Tony Blair helped millions of students get useless degrees. What rich irony that his son Euan has made a fortune proving his folly
This is the story of a bright, presentable young man called Euan, who may seem a splendid advertisement for British entrepreneurship.
When Euan left school in 2002, he studied ancient history at the University of Bristol, and then did a master’s degree in international relations. All this taught him ‘nothing’, he said later. And that gave him an idea.
Five years ago, Euan co-founded a firm called WhiteHat, later renamed Multiverse. The aim was to give school leavers the chance to move straight into the world of work, bypassing university.
Multiverse now has links with some 300 employers, including household names such as Google and the investment bank Morgan Stanley, and has placed 5,000 youngsters in apprenticeships. Having raised millions of dollars from American investors, it is valued at a cool £639 million — which means young Euan is worth more than £160 million.
For in a glorious irony, Euan’s father is one Tony Blair — the unashamed apostle of university expansion, who infamously set a target of getting 50 per cent of all school-leavers into higher education. Pictured: Euan (left) with his father in May 2005
The really impressive thing, though, is that he did it in defiance of his own father.
For in a glorious irony, Euan’s father is one Tony Blair — the unashamed apostle of university expansion, who infamously set a target of getting 50 per cent of all school-leavers into higher education.
Mr Blair made that pledge back in 1999, and it was only achieved 20 years later. But his son regards it as a dreadful mistake.
As the younger Blair told an interviewer last month, the 50 per cent target has merely corralled youngsters into degree courses for which many are entirely unsuited, and from which they derive little benefit.
Universities typically lure them in with grandiose promises of vast future earnings. Yet, as Euan Blair points out, ‘lots of students end up in jobs deemed to be low skilled that would not need a degree in the first place’.
But what does his father think of this? Alas, he doesn’t agree.
Only this summer, Tony Blair actually claimed that his expansion policy hadn’t gone far enough. Almost unbelievably, he called for yet more students to go into higher education, and suggested building 46 more universities in towns such as Doncaster, Batley and Blackpool — despite the fact that many existing universities are already perilously close to bankruptcy.
So who’s right: Tony or Euan, father or son?
Well, having taught at four different British universities, I think the answer is obvious. Euan Blair is absolutely right.
Even two decades ago, when I taught at the University of Sheffield, I sometimes wondered what we were all doing there. My history students were bright and enthusiastic, destined for good professional jobs. But they’d probably have got the jobs they wanted anyway, even if they’d skipped the dubious pleasure of spending three years listening to me.
To question the benefits of university expansion is, I know, a kind of heresy. A university education is often seen as a moral good, and Left-wing academics often bleat about a youngster’s ‘right’ to study whatever they want, no matter how ill-suited they might be for higher education.
Enthusiasts for university expansion, such as Mr Blair and his political manservant, Lord Adonis, always insist that graduates earn more than non-graduates. They do indeed — but there’s no reason to believe that their university education is the deciding factor.
A more plausible explanation is simply that most graduates, like the vast majority of the students I taught, tend to come from more affluent households, have better school qualifications and already have the skills and confidence to succeed. So even if they had never bothered going to university, they might still have earned more anyway.
That’s certainly Euan Blair’s view. Contradicting his father, he recently pointed out that only 4 per cent of children on free school meals make it to top Russell Group universities. So much, then, for university expansion as a vehicle for social mobility!
Enthusiasts for university expansion, such as Mr Blair and his political manservant, Lord Adonis, always insist that graduates earn more than non-graduates. They do indeed — but there’s no reason to believe that their university education is the deciding factor
In any case, it’s simply a myth that all graduates move on to a land of milk and honey. Official figures show that if you study sociology or anthropology, you’ve only a 48 per cent chance of getting a graduate-level job within 15 months of finishing your degree.
Even if you study history, my own subject, the figure only rises to 56 per cent.
And at some universities, the graduate employment rates are simply awful. When I read, for example, that only 15 per cent of the University of Bedfordshire’s business and management students go on to graduate-level jobs, my blood boils at such a waste of time, money and emotional effort.
But this is merely one symptom of a bloated, corrupt and broken system. Wherever you look, British universities seem in utter disarray.
I’ve written before about the scandal of vice-chancellors’ pay, epitomised by characters like the University of Bolton’s George Holmes, with his £290,000 salary, yacht and a Bentley, as well as a £1 million loan for his Edwardian house.
Bolton, incidentally, features prominently in the league table of institutions with the worst drop-out rates — a dreadful indictment of the tendency to shove youngsters into higher education, whether they are suited to it or not.
The figures make awful reading. In the year before the pandemic, Bolton’s dropout rate was 15.4 per cent, only just ahead of Bedfordshire (15.2 per cent) and Suffolk (13.6 per cent). But it wasn’t even the worst offender. That was London Metropolitan, with a dropout rate of a staggering 18.6 per cent.
Five years ago, Euan (left) co-founded a firm called WhiteHat, later renamed Multiverse. The aim was to give school leavers the chance to move straight into the world of work, bypassing university. Pictured: Tony Blair with wife Cherie, and sons Euan and Nicky (right) in 2005
Behind these cold statistics are hundreds, even thousands, of students, usually from poorer households, taking the painful and demoralising decision to abandon a course that simply wasn’t right.
Then there’s student debt. According to the Government’s own figures, outstanding student debt currently stands at £141 billion, and is likely to reach a mind-boggling £560 billion by the middle of this century.
Yet almost unbelievably, the Government’s own projections suggest that only a quarter of today’s undergraduates will ever earn enough money to pay their debt in full!
Why, then, does the higher education racket continue? The answers are obvious. Institutional greed, academic self-interest, liberal dogma and a crushing inability to question the metropolitan conventional wisdom that, in Euan Blair’s words, ‘one-size-fits-all’.
As a result, we now have a society divided roughly in two, with higher education as the new class signifier. Go to university, and you’re supposedly a middle-class success story. Leave school for the world of work and you’re supposedly a dull-witted failure.
It’s an astoundingly crude and limiting way to look at a youngster’s future. But thanks to relentless political pressure and shameless university hucksterism, millions of parents and teenagers alike have come to believe it.
Yet the younger Blair’s admirable scheme shows that another way is possible. We don’t need more sociology graduates.
Euan Blair and his wife Suzanne leave All Saints Church after getting married on September 14, 2013 in Wotton Underwood. Yesterday, the 37-year-old’s company was valued at £640million
Indeed, at the risk of self-destruction, I don’t even think we need more history graduates. If the number of students reading history fell by half overnight, I don’t think Britain would be a penny poorer — whether economically, culturally or intellectually.
But we all know what we do need, don’t we? As the Recruitment and Employment Confederation reported three weeks ago, we need 79,000 nurses, 50,000 care workers, 29,000 chefs, 26,000 sales staff, 24,000 cleaners, 19,000 metal workers and 6,000 carpenters. And — how could I forget? — we also need more than 100,000 lorry and tanker drivers.
For too long, politicians have looked down their noses at jobs like these, insisting that teenagers would be better off doing a three-year humanities degree than working their way up in a practical trade. The events of the last few weeks, however, should remind us how short-sighted this was.
Yes, there are no degrees in lorry driving, waitressing or caregiving — or at least, not yet. But it’s these kind of jobs on which Britain depends.
Three cheers, then, for young Mr Blair — not a line I ever thought I’d write. And if more apprenticeships make him even richer, good luck to him. He spotted a useful opportunity and he deserves every penny.
As for his father, whose misguided policies encouraged so many people to waste their time and money, I appreciate that he’s never going to listen to me. But would it never occur to him to listen to his son?