Higher Education – an Alternative.

An image from the protests the day the tripling of university fees and effective privatisation of higher education was passed.

An image from the protests the day the tripling of university fees and effective privatisation of higher education was passed.

Always seem to find myself blogging on Christmas Eve, and it does tend to be a slightly political one. A combination of panic over not hitting my 4-a-month pseudo target to provoke the blog, and of looking forward to a whole new year to shuffle bigger ideas into my head. I haven’t done very much talking about politics over here recently though, and I think that has something to do with feeling completely overwhelmed at the sheer amount of thoughtless, incredibly damaging and regressive policy that a government can propose and pass in such a short amount of time. But I suspect that front-loading this shift to a severe right wing agenda is entirely meant to wrong-foot opposition – both in terms of mainstream political opposition (still reforming) and  what I guess I might term ‘social’ opposition (i.e. of wider society, protest, resistance, occupation). Who on earth has the energy to oppose each ignorant and hurtful piece of policy? And while single-interest organisations and movements are probably the best way to aim energy at each attack, this prevents energy mounting behind a universal resistance. Heads they win, tails you lose.

And I could concentrate on and deconstruct some particular attacks; on women, on children, on the disabled or education, but there are people doing this stronger and more thoroughly than I have the energy to do. And actually we all need moments of throwing energy at non-negative things, don’t we? Ideas of our own, not formed in direct opposition to others’. So I’m going to talk about something briefly here, inelegantly and slightly outrageous, but importantly about change-for-the-better , not stopping change-for-the-worse. It is borne of the resistance that I have been involved in the most – the privatisation of our higher education system (it is nothing less, and so not about tuition fees foremost) – and also as an academic, lecturer, and student, an area which I daily encounter. And finally it hopefully faces the ‘you’re just protesting against, not offering an alternative/it’s just the same as a graduate tax’ criticisms.

This is cobbled together from a couple of comment posts and is still fragmented. But it’s Christmas Eve, gimme a break.

Most people agree the problem with funding higher education is that by raising the bar in attendance (albeit for reasonable aims – and I think I stick by Labour on this – beforehand the wrong 10% were going) to 50% or so, there are just too many people to fund all of them (to a degree that is palatable to current UK mainstream politics at least), and it results in a surplus of people educated to degree level, leading to the farcical situation where you need a degree for an entry level admin job in any of the big desirable professions – media, PR, the creative industries, engineering, etc.

We also need a revision of the education system inline with the needs of the country. What is the biggest problem? In a society with what is considered a ‘surplus’ of uni-educated people, NEETs – those Not in Education Employment or Training – often young, often from the least advantaged backgrounds – the kind of people for whom  EMA and FE make all the difference –  they are completely lost to this system.

We should also admit that some people want to pursue education for its own sake – but also some people want a job, and that’s why they go to uni. And that, finally, greater employment, better research, a more educated populace, people better at and more happier with their jobs – these are things a country should invest in. Not only because they pay back dividends. This final point is a left-wing ideological stance and I make no apology for that, but the idea below also outlines aspects of meritocratic ideas that the right-wing claim to aspire to, too.

So higher education, how do you fix it?

If you believe uni should be for the most able (one hopes a reasonable assumption), then money should be taken out of the equation all together. Anything else privileges the better off, paying it back afterwards or via tax can sound as reasonable as you like but applying a monetary value to it makes it an issue of value not worth – there is also real ignorance in the assumption that debt means the same to a typical middle-class household (how you own your house, your car, Christmas) as it does to a typical working class one (something you don’t deserve, have access to, or given to you on terms that mean you will never be able to own a house, a car, the kind of debt that in paying for Christmas ruins the rest of the year) .

So you take personal or parental income out of the equation all together and produce grant-funded university places for the top 20-25% (of those that want them) academic achievers from every school (this neatly avoids problems with ability vs. attainment that comes with private and rural vs inner city schools).

Then training courses formed as modern apprenticeships are introduced to be worth the same as degrees for things like engineering, management, tech; the kind of course which now emphasise a year-in-industry as the most useful thing in actually getting a job.

And what is now the FE system turns to technical degrees – cheffing, plumbing, mechanics, hair and beauty, website design, green tech, that kind of thing.

This would bring us to an introduction of a practical degree (PD), technical degree (TD) and academy degree (AD) all worth the same, but realistically reflecting the different aspects of the contemporary jobs market, and academic intentions.

The government subsidises ADs, Businesses subsidise TDs, and a mix of both gives money to PDs.

Selecting from ability, rather than attainment or ability to pay would hopefully see that this doesn’t become about class or proximity to wealth, but rather about what you are able and want to do. Also, just imagine what this would do to the quality of secondary schools – all those upper middle class parents moving to disadvantaged areas to get their tutored kids into struggling schools – could it bring down the economic segregation of our school system?

Making all types of study/training of equal worth would mean someone who wanted to be an applied artist would go and get a TD, one who wanted to study art history an AD or someone who wanted to be an interior designer a PD. Or those who wanted to opt out would be able to do that too. This would need to be backed up by a system more like a baccalaureate – a universal  taster secondary education which can allow you to take a much broader range of skills and subjects, and wasn’t towards attainment in grades, but an overall accomplishment built of the areas you find interest or ability, as well as a revision of physical, political and social education.

So there you go. The next time someone shouts at me ‘you haven’t got a better plan’, actually, I think I do. Audacious, yes, not screwed down to the final detail, sure, but big ideas start somewhere, don’t they? The NHS did.

Merry Christmas.

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2 Responses to “Higher Education – an Alternative.”

  1. Rabelais December 27, 2010 at 1:07 pm #

    Hello Hanna,
    I think I agree to some extent with your idea of offering what looks to me like a variety of tertiary options to meet a range of abilities and aspirations. I’ve felt for some time that the ambition to extend HE (while apparently admirable) had failed to deliver social mobility and was leading to an identity crisis for universities to boot, as the tried to be all things to all people. I don’t see how one institutional form can ever be suitable for all abilities and ambitions. And I don’t believe that simply ‘more education’ produces social mobility. The research on this suggests that the reason the UK is socially immobile is because of the growing gap between the rich and poor. Closing that gap is not the job of HE, rather that would require the sort of re-distributive policies that successive governments have baulked at.

    But there is one thing I’m a little uneasy about your proposal (and I say this without having really worked out my own position on it yet). Isn’t there a danger if we divide up academic, technical and practical, that we institutionalise the division of head and hand? And that division has historically been defining in terms of class. The rich are academic, the middle class are technical and the working class are practical (to but it crudely).

  2. Hannah Nicklin January 3, 2011 at 2:15 pm #

    Hello Rabelais,

    Thanks very much for your comment, apologies for not replying sooner -Christmas and New Year and all that! You’re right, I believe, that’s it’s not ‘more education’ that produces greater social mobility, but ‘more access to education’ – which includes removing monetary, skills-based, and aspiration barriers.

    Closing the growing gap between the rich and the poor is not the job of HE, but it is part of a holistic solution that takes in all barriers to earning (though of course some review of the fuller system itself is likely required, the current expression of capitalism at work requires people to be poor)

    The unease you express about the solution I offer is very welcome, and of course the finer details (which hopefully you understood not to be in evidence here!) would have to bear this in mind, as it would also the danger that technical/practical/academic would be seen as a hierarchy – not a plain (plane? Academia fails me here ;)). But I would hope that the problem of rich=academic etc., would be solved by the selection from a percentage from every school, not the top achievers full stop. There are probably other solutions too. When I get made schools secretary I’ll work them all out ;)

    Thanks again.

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