Times Higher Education published today a version of an earlier post on this blog, Why should a postman pay for your university education?.
Although the submtted version was within length, it got shortened and, worse, a bit garbled in places. I got no chance to check the final version. The penultimate paragraph was not written by me. So here, for the record, is what I sent them.
.We hear a lot about lifelong education, and a good thing too. But we have a government that seems to think socially-useful learning does end at 18. This age is a watershed in official attitudes to education particularly in two areas, religious discrimination and education as a public good.
In 1871 the Universities Tests Act made it illegal for a university to discriminate among applicants on the basis of religious beliefs (or lack thereof) and forced Oxford, Cambridge, and Durham to follow in the footsteps of UCL. For the last 140 years it has been unimaginable that any university would allow religious discrimination. In stark contrast, in 2010, religious discrimination (and the accompanying social discrimination) in entry to primary and secondary schools is not only legal, but is actively encouraged by the government. It was a trend that got worse while the ‘reverend’ Tony Blair was prime minister. The minister of education under the new conservative regime promised even more religious schools. Why the rules should be diametrically opposite when you are under 18 from when you are over 18 is baffling.
It is equally baffling (and perhaps a partial explanation) that universities are not regarded as part of education at all by this government and its immediate predecessors. Universities are governed by the Department of Business, not the Department of Education. Education is not regarded as a continuum, or as a life-long project: it’s something you do at school.
The government has managed the remarkable feat of devising a system for universities in which everybody loses. It saves the taxpayer little or no money (according to HEPI). It leaves universities worse off. And it does both of these while tripling the debt incurred by students. It’s hard to believe that such monumental ineptitude has motives that are other than ideological. The virtual privatisation of post-18 teaching, particularly of humanities, was a step too far even for Margaret Thatcher.
The only too brief debate on these changes focussed almost entirely on how to repay an enormous debt. That was the wrong starting point. The first thing that should have been decided was what sort of university system we want. It is arguable that the honours degree system is quite unsuited to an age when half the population get higher education. A general first degree, at a teaching-only institution, would be much cheaper, and it would be a social leveller. If that were followed, for those who wanted and merited it, by a properly taught graduate school (as opposed to the present powerpoint-teaching charades), and this was taught by active researchers at research intensive places, the standard of education would be increased. There might be some problems with such a system, but they were not even discussed before rushing the changes through.
The organisation that should have been at the forefront of fresh thinking, UUK, was paralysed as the elite VCs, all in favour of maximum fees, wrangled with the post-1992 VCs who saw themselves at greater risk. The result was total inaction. They may have been on leadership courses, but they failed to lead. The elite VCs are now finding that even £9000 will leave them worse off than before. They really should have thought a bit more about how to adapt to tertiary education for half the population rather than trying to fund things as they are at the moment.
Whatever the system, the question will always arise: why should a postman pay for your university education? My answer is that they should pay, but not very much. They should pay because, although they may not get any direct benefit themselves, their children certainly may. The fairest, most progressive, tax is income tax. If you are a postman, or indeed a graduate, on a low income, you shouldn’t pay much tax, so you won’t pay much for other people’s university education.
I can see no reason for the sudden change in attitude to, and funding of, education that happens when you reach 18.
I see every reason why kids should be angry. I doubt that we have seen the last of the riots.
I hope not anyway.
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