'Our top priority was, is, and always will be education, education, education,' said Tony Blair in 2001, as he announced his landmark target for half of the school leavers to attend university by 2010. In the years since, Blair's target has been met by a mixed reception, with the Prime Minister's own son, Euan Blair, proving to be one of its most vocal critics.
'When you look at the 50 per cent target, the belief was that the more people go to university, the more people can access great opportunities, the more we would transition people fairly from full time education to full time employment. It has not worked out that way,' explains Euan Blair.
The policy target has failed to level the playing field, with only 4 percent of those on free school meals making it to a Russell Group university.
Recognizing the need to support alternatives to university, the UK Chancellor Rishi Sunak unveiled new plans at the autumn spending review to fund a Â£3bn 'skills revolution. Under his proposal, Â£1.6bn will be earmarked to roll out new T-levels for 16 to 19-year-olds, with subjects on offer including 'on-site construction' and 'digital support services.'
Apprenticeship funding is also set to increase by Â£170m to a record high of Â£2.7bn in 2024-25. This additional support is expected to create 24,000 traineeships, providing alternative pathways to university.
This spending package could not come at a more critical time.
For decades, Britain has witnessed serious shortcomings in technical and vocational training, with the Institute for Fiscal Studies calculating that government spending on adult further education in England has dropped by one-third since 2010.
Over the same period, median remuneration of further education teachers in general colleges increased from Â£31,000 to Â£32,800, leaving them paid Â£9,000 less than their counterparts in schools. Facing real-terms cuts to their pay, more than half of the college workforce of 2014-15 has left.
With limited funding and staffing shortages, technical qualifications such as the Higher National Diploma have proven unpopular, with only about 10 per cent of UK adults holding this type of qualification compared with 20 per cent of Germans. This is despite the fact that these qualifications provide routes into high-tech industries, such as Formula One racing, without the need for expensive student loans.
Nevertheless, a key issue holding back many is the perception that technical training produces steady jobs but does not ultimately provide a route to the top. To combat hesitancy, alternative pathways to university must be adequately funded, ensuring high-quality training is delivered, and clear progression routes are offered.
For this reason, the Chancellor's plans to fund a 'skills revolution' must be commended. However, many claims these plans do not go far enough, with the Association of Colleges chief executive David Hughes arguing at least Â£300m per year is required to support education recovery for 16 to 19-year-olds.
To help plug the gap and bridge the educational divide, private philanthropists must begin to play a larger role.
Recognizing the litany of challenges facing young people today, the Nick Maughan Foundation launched BoxWise earlier this year to help disadvantaged young adults make successful transitions to adulthood.
Offering boxing classes with a difference, BoxWise's 13-week programme helps young people develop essential life skills such as teamwork, adaptability, and emotional control. Upon successful completion, BoxWise graduates are then offered places on vocational training courses, with past participants completing the likes of personal training, professional catering, and boxing coaching courses.
Its programme targets vulnerable individuals who are otherwise hard to reach and at risk of falling through the cracks. By working closely with local police and social services, as well as reformed community leaders who may have come from troubled backgrounds themselves, BoxWise is better able to identify those who are most likely to benefit from its services.
The Chancellor's educational spending plans appear promising. However, there is a lot of catching up to do, with technical and vocational training programmes left underfunded for decades.
Projects like BoxWise are ideally placed to live up to the government's vision in this sphere, helping pave the way for broader prosperity in the future.
To truly unlock the potential of Britain's young people and lay the foundations for a high-wage economy, we must put everything on the table and use the resources of philanthropists to adequately fund alternative pathways to university.
Nick Maughan is a British investor and philanthropist. He is the founder of the Nick Maughan Foundation and Maughan Capital.