University or bust Part 2

What am I going to do next? Part 11

Dave Gardner

In part 8 of this series I looked at mass university education in Britain and concluded that it had some significant harmful side effects. This was not a whinge along the lines of ‘more means worse’, a snobbish slogan attributed to the novelist Kingsley Amis in 1960 at a time when 25,000 people a year obtained a university degree. The issue was more one of whether it was wise to send close to 50% of 18-25 year olds to university when very good alternatives could be made available.

One of these alternatives is to give young people the opportunity to enter higher education without going to university. Another is to break the link between attending university or a higher education institution and leaving one’s home region. A third is to expand the further education sector, including its advanced technical component and a fourth is to expand the number of young people taking on a higher apprenticeship. A fifth is to adopt some mixture of all these possibilities. This will have the supreme advantage of not taking away something that many people value, but providing a more worthwhile education for many young people above the age of 18. To this I would like to add a sixth possibility, to provide more opportunities for adults to continue to study in their spare time, by funding them to do so and also by providing state financed study leave during their adult working lives. Currently British universities have too much political power, so much so that they are able to distort both the further education and compulsory education sectors to their own benefit. Increasingly too they are turning their backs on educating the British and becoming expensive finishing schools for wealthy overseas students. 

Higher Education.

A higher education course involves studying for a qualification at level 4 or above, very roughly the first year of a higher education course. A Higher National Certificate (HNC) at level 4 or a Higher National Diploma (HND) at level 5 are both examples of qualifications gained through higher education. They have been around for a long time and have enjoyed a justifiably high reputation for academic integrity and practical relevance. They have now almost declined into irrelevance although the current government hopes to revive them or something resembling them. Traditionally they have been offered in both the FE sector and in polytechnics when these existed. Nowadays the bachelor degree is seen as the only worthwhile higher education qualification worth having.

The government is currently considering the future of higher technical qualifications and it is to be hoped that they do not damage what are already good qualifications. However, we are accustomed to think in terms of education as either academic or vocational, the latter usually meaning ‘technical’ and involving some maths and science. ‘Academic’ subjects on the other hand, may involve science and maths but very often a student can avoid these entirely and study maths- and science-free arts, humanities and social sciences, remaining blissfully ignorant of some of the basic everyday knowledge that many people need to practice their occupations. Very often students in this category display an exaggerated horror at the thought of engaging with anything that smacks of mathematics.

Those following technical qualifications together with those who teach them often tend to adopt a very utilitarian view of what they are doing, seeing it as purely job preparation and as having little or nothing to do with developing as a human being or as a citizen. This is hardly their fault as nothing in government of educational propaganda suggests that they should think about technical education in any other way.

The market-based view of education makes this easier to happen. Students can select courses that they wish to do and avoid challenge if that’s what they want. If they deem some material ‘irrelevant’ then they can ignore it. This is an attitude taken for granted in Britain but not in some other European countries where it is instead taken for granted that preparing for an occupation also involves engaging in some personal and civic development. This attitude has never taken root in Britain. But there is a good reason for continuing to provide more general education as part of a vocational qualification, if we want to produce workers who have a broader vision of what their work involves and their place as workers in society. Likewise, there is no good reason why students in higher education following the social sciences and humanities should be able to dodge some knowledge of maths, statistics and science just because they do not like them. The same reasons could apply to them as to the ‘vocational’ students. Alternatively, if this sounds too much like compulsion then there should be a much more generous offer in adult education, including inexpensive courses and time off work to study for adults who feel later that they have missed out on important elements of their education. The Labour Party founded the Open University in 1969 to do just that but they have, when they’ve been in power later, neglected developing their own creation and have adopted a mean-minded and utilitarian attitude to education generally.

So we can envisage a world in which young people who wish to gain higher education qualifications could stay in their locality and enjoy some of the broader benefits of education beyond occupational preparation. Local universities could continue to offer what they currently do but be gradually steered towards more occupationally relevant programmes albeit with a liberal element. Further Education Colleges would have a big role to play in developing higher technical qualifications relevant to their local economies while also providing more broadly based courses. The balance of funding should be tilted firmly in favour of these institutions and there should be no question of an invidious loan system being introduced to finance students studying in them.

The role of the State.

The Labour Party should revise its previous worship of the market and accept that higher and further education need planning that takes account of regional and local as well as national needs. The government should favour some subjects and disfavour others, so that a better balance is achieved. Students are not the only ones who have an interest in what kind of education young people receive. Society should also have a say.

All of this is relevant to enabling young people to stay in their home communities if they so wish. There is no automatic mechanism that means that communities will automatically revive if they produce young people with the appropriate education, but if an educated, technically adept population is combined with an attractive environment and good transport and housing, together with incentives such as local buying of goods and services by councils, colleges can play a role in reviving Britain’s regions. All this can be done without drastic demolition of what already exists, but though careful and incremental improvement.

I return to the point. Young people’s prospects of working and raising families in their own towns and villages depend not just on the presence of education, but on there being jobs, good transport, adequate and affordable housing and an attractive environment. This will not happen without collaboration between central government and local and regional governments, which involves hard work and attention to detail. Is the Labour Party up to it? At local and regional level in many places it may well be, but it is hard to be optimistic about the leadership and the PLP as they are currently constituted.

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