Friday, 12 November 2010

Muddling and Marginalisation in Higher Education

Friends and colleagues are having a low-level set-to today, following the combustible scenes at the NUS demonstration in central London yesterday. Some use the wheat-from-chaff argument about how higher fees & less government funding will discourage those who were at best equivocal about university education. Others doggedly highlight those who want to go but will feel increasingly intimidated by the towering cliff-face of costs.

Governments have not always sold higher education very well. I suspect that all my friends and colleagues would agree that making the cost of higher education as low as possible to encourage those who feel that that is what they want to do is good. The arguments above concern those in the considerable penumbra of such a situation: those who don't know what university can offer, who come from families with no higher education experience; and those who question its value but come from a culture where it's expected.

In the Noughties the Labour government did an effective job of encouraging a greater, broader uptake of university places. The student loan system was introduced to offset the burden of (also novel) tuition fees. Above all the government undertook a re-branding exercise, removing the hierarchical stigma of institutions by excising the term 'Polytechnic'. This was not only a reasonable but actually a moral levelling of the higher education playing field.

However, what the Labour government also did was to tie repayment of student loans to future earnings. Not only this but they sold the idea of further education in vocational terms - i.e. how having a university degree increases employment and therefore earning potential.

Two questions must be asked of this change in the perception of higher education. Firstly, do employers really value graduates above others to do the job they need done? And, secondly, do young people undertake to study a subject intensively for three years because they want a better job?

The answer to the first question is moot, although I have phrased it like I have to make a point. Naturally, an employer hires on merit. Clearly an economics degree is going to show considerable merit for someone wanting to work in the square mile. A common sidestep though is to say that a graduate shows an aptitude for learning and industry that are the basic tools for undertaking a new job, whatever it may be; this is why many graduates are hired despite the non-specificity of their degree, or after having taken a conversion course. However, the qualities of resourcefulness and responsibility may equally have been acquired and developed without attending lectures, sitting a library and pursuing oblivion at a cheap bar at weekends. In other words, hiring a graduate is a reliable shortcut for taking on appropriate HR but it's not more than that.

The second issue is much more straightforward. There being all sorts of reasons why someone might undertake to attend university for three years, yet the only reason one does it willingly is interest in the subject. Part of the appeal of university is that one is able to study subjects that, even if outwardly quite straightforward, can take a curious student on all sorts of ecelctic paths of investigation. Which, by virtue of the word eclectic, may be anathema to employers looking for those with solid, transferrable-skill grade vocational training. Despite their best intentions, the labour government's sales pitch for higher education was far too university-centric. There are any number of ways in which one can pursue vocational training. I would suggest that many of these do not involve a university at all.

So, the previous government opened up the possibility of higher education to more people but simplified the benefits. If anything they were most guilty of patronising students.

I have to say that this coalition government's moves are beginning to look rather more sinister. By all but removing the cap on tuition fees they are de facto increasing those fees. Student loans remain in place. This is an exercise in brushing problems under the carpet though - why not remove the student loan scheme altogether and use the immediate cashflow to benefit the institutions that must otherwise charge higher fees? That would be ideologically more in tune with this government's position - and, though it has immediate negative headline potential, it also sends the positive message that the government doesn't want to continue to sanction the shouldering of personal debt, which might be a popular and positive move in the light of the credit-crunch-caused deficit.

Worse though are the increasing threat to less obvious, publicly available sources of education and personal improvement. London is not the only part of the country where libraries are under considerable threat (through council funding cuts) and the Open University's funding is due to be slashed. Those who want to pursue alternative or informal education without going to university will be marginalised.

It's clear that the deficit demands rather radical action. Instead of broadening the intrinsic nature of higher education though, this government has narrowed it still further: you need to have higher education to get a better job is reinforced but might soon become the only option.

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