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Why Britain should become the first country in the world to institute higher education for all – by Sir Anthony Seldon

  • 15 October 2020
  • By Sir Anthony Seldon

This blog has been kindly contributed by Sir Anthony Seldon, who was the Vice-Chancellor of The University of Buckingham from 2015 until last month and was previously head at Brighton College and then Wellington College. He is one of Britain’s leading contemporary historians, educationalists, commentators and political authors.

Education is a fundamental need and right of all the human race. Animals learn, but they lack our enquiring nature and desire to delve deep into abstract thought. Children are endlessly inquisitive, as I rediscovered when a school teacher. But all too often, our school system knocks the curiosity and joy in learning out of them. In their place, it gives them test and exam grades.

Unless our minds are stretched and stimulated, we cannot live life to the full, and we readily become inert and self-destructive. The school system tells a third of young people currently, and even greater numbers in the past, that they are ‘failures’ academically. This is outrageous. Because every single person is capable of learning, prisoners, the homeless and destitute, those failed by school and society. Everyone. My experience in schools showed me repeatedly that, if you help a child who is deemed an academic failure to believe in themselves, they re-engage and start to enjoy learning again.

My argument in this blog is that Britain should become the first country in the world to institute higher education for all. I see further education as wrapped up in this whole vision.

For most of recorded history, education was the prerogative of the rich and powerful. Only gradually in the last 300 years has it extended to all young people, initially of primary age in Britain (though some 800 million children globally are still without a formal primary education of recognisable quality).

In 1900, it would have seemed absurd to suggest that there should be universal secondary education for all in this country. It came only slowly, with the school leaving age creeping up over 11 through 14, 15, 16 and now beyond. Even today, it is still of vastly uneven quality, heavily dependent on parental income and a child’s location. But at least it is established as the right that every child will have a free education at secondary level.

Higher education too was once the prerogative of the rich and wealthy. It should be there for all, young and old, and I believe that this will happen by 2040. Call me a dreamer… but I believe it will happen.  

We all know that AI and digitalisation will change the nature of employment forever: we merely do not know exactly how. Already, students who study professional qualifications at university, including Medicine, Dentistry, Law and Accountancy, find their knowledge is rapidly out of date. Final year Medics find their notes worryingly redundant from their first year. We need to implant firmly, in place of the notion that education finishes at 18 or 21, the idea of lifelong learning to equip all with changing work skills.

Universal HE is about much more though than jobs. We have a profound democratic and social inclusion deficit in this country. Far too many experienced inadequate schooling, were bored by it, and switched off from learning. Trumpeting test and exam success as the only legitimiser of a good school education does profound damage to the notion of education for its own sake. Too many who made it on to HE chose subjects for merely transactional reasons, or they selected a course, as I did, that didn’t deeply interest them. Or they simply were not ready for HE. Some at 18 are neither emotionally nor intellectually equipped yet to appreciate fully the glories of higher education.

So I am proposing that every citizen affiliate to a university for life, and are encouraged to undertake programmes of study, be they bite size, modular or credit-bearing, up to undergraduate or postgraduate levels. We should equally be making it much easier for those at school who are making rapid progress in certain subjects, empowered by personalised machine learning, to take modules at university while still at school. Yes, as young as 12.

Where adult HE learning has direct employment relevance, the individual or their company should pay for it. Where it is in a purer subject, perhaps the study of Philosophy, History of Art, Astronomy or Theology, students should be means-tested and pay according to income. Yes there will be an enormous increase in Treasury spending to pay for it all. It is money well spent. The cost to the NHS, to the social services and to employers from those who drop out of the system runs into billions of pounds annually. We should be seeing universal HE as an investment which will pay for itself.

Many organisations are already anticipating this direction, such as University of the Third Age (U3A). The Government’s drive to beef up FE is helpful, and would be improved still if we valued FE as a public good, rather than merely as a utilitarian device. 

The education deficit is real and growing. Intellectual stimulation is vital to good health, and mental health too, as a way to ensure full participation in life. Bored minds turn in on themselves, into depression, alcohol and drug abuse, vandalism and negativity. Lifelong HE will help provide the knowledge and stimulus to ward off illness and depression. We can teach people to live well. The education system has failed in its duty to teach us how to live life well, how to care for our bodies and minds. It is hardly surprising that the Covid epidemic has accelerated the emergence of our underlying crisis in mental health.

The top tier of our universities should maintain their focus on international research and recognition, though even they should admit students into their extra-mural departments from these new cohorts. Besides, the Fourth Education Revolution will destroy the walls erected around HE. The extra-mural will become the universal. Learning without walls, frontiers or barriers. Joined up learning at last between HE, FE, schools, galleries and museums.

Every large town across the land will have a flourishing university, which will become the beating cultural, educational, aspirational, entrepreneurial and creative hearts of their local communities deep into the next century.

Anthony Seldon’s latest book, The Fourth Education Revolution Reconsidered, will be published this week.


  1. Aasia Shafiq Chaudhry says:

    It is a good read and I do agree that education deficit is real and growing.

    I also feel that some curriculum ( theories, concepts and ideologies) is outdated and does not align well with the demands, challenges and aspirations of current time particularly in the context of U.K. when we want to decrease social division and segregation.

    But the aspect of quality teaching and reforms in education system are important to improve quality and experience of learning for students .

  2. Sarah Lambert says:

    The education deficit will not be resolved by separating the supposedly “vocational” from the (presumably) hobby subjects, condeming the latter, an arbitrarily chosen and historically contibgent group as economicallyy valuless, and therefore ony to be studied by those who can afford to take on a high percentage ot he apparent cost. This will simply serve to cement the already invidious and widespread tendency for disadvantaged students to focus their attentions on subjects and discilines which they percieve as have a clearer career trajectory, and thus being excluded more and more from arts, heritage and humanities based careers. It ill befits a parliament almost none of whose members has one of the supposedly “saleable” and therefore economicaly valued degrees to make decisions excluding the less advantaged form areas of study which they themselves have found both intellectually rewarding and benefcia in career development. PPE should be as open to all students as computer science.

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