Tony Blair, when he was Prime Minister, believed that 50% of school leavers should go on to university.
While some critics argued that increasing the number of undergraduates could only come at the expense of diluting the quality of third level education, others contended that a university education broadened the mind and equipped young people with the skills needed for future high-value employment. That argument now seems purely academic as universities are set to retrench on their intakes or else face funding 'fines'.
As this newspaper reports today, around 10,000 young people in Northern Ireland could face disappointment when their A-Level results are published next week. For that is the number of applicants to the two universities here for whom there are no places. That is the human cost of this government's policy of cutting back on third level education intakes.
It may well be that many of those who have applied for university courses ultimately will not be suited to a life of academia. But unlike Germany, where a high value is put on vocational education, their options here are very limited. Where are the apprenticeships in these recessionary times? Where is the skills training for vocational occupations? What we do know is that almost 17,500 young people in Northern Ireland are officially classified as unemployed. Will that total continue to rise and are we in danger of creating a lost generation?
The old adage that the devil makes work for idle hands has a particular resonance in this province, where disaffected youth can be lured easily into the arms of dissidents or criminals. The coalition government at Westminster and the power-sharing Executive at Stormont needs to take a long, hard look at the provision of opportunity for our young people. Budget savings which leave young people without hope would be disastrously short-sighted and too high a price to pay.