We hear a lot about lifelong education, and a good thing too. But we have a government that seems to think life ends at 18. The contrast between official attitudes to schools and post-school education is striking. The contrast is most striking in two areas: religious discrimination and public support for costs.
Religous discriminatiion and selection
The Universities Tests Act was passed on 18 June 1871, while William Gladstone (Liberal) was Prime minister. It was "An Act to alter the law respecting Religious Tests in the Universities of Oxford, Cambridge, and Durham, and in the Halls and Colleges of those Universities". Of course UCL was founded in 1826, partly as a place that was free of religious discrimination. Since 1871 it has been illegal for a university to discriminate among applicants on the basis of their religious beliefs or lack of them. For the last 140 years it has been unimaginable that anyone would try to do such a thing.
In stark contrast, in 2010, religious discrimination among entrance 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 (illiberal) 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 younger than 18 from when you are over 18 is baffling.
It is equally baffling (and perhaps a partial explanation) that universities are not regarded by this government, or by Blair’s, as part of education at all. They are governed by the Department of Business, not the Department of Education.
Why should a postman pay for your university education?
I imagine that I’m not the only person who has wrestled with this question in the last few weeks (Stephen Law’s thoughts here)
In the UK it is a legal requirement to stay in full time education until the age of 16, and that should be increased to 18 by 2015. Although most children stay in school until 18, around 25% or 30% don’t. I have never heard anybody question the idea that education from 16 to 18 should not be supported 100 percent by the state, out of general taxation. That is the case despite the fact that not everybody stays in education up to 18.
Education up to the age of 18 is regarded as a common good and nobody questions for a moment that it should be free at the point of use.
Once again, everything changes entirely when you reach 18. Education is not regarded as a continuum, or as a life-long project. Suddenly at the age of 18, it stops being a public good worthy of state support, and becomes an optional extra for those who are rich, or those who are not deterred by the idea of going though life paying a debt that will, in some cases, approach the size of the mortgage on their house.
The ConDem coalition, on December 9th 2010, has come very close to privatising the teaching of humanities in universities. You are encouraged to learn languages from 16 – 18 and then these are dropped like a hot cake.
The result has been riots by schoolchildren and total discrediting of Liberal democrats who voted for one of the most philistine measures in living memory.
The discussion of this legislation has, in my view, focussed on the wrong thing. It has been almost entirely about the mechanisms for paying off an enormous debt. That was the wrong place to start. This is what should have been done.
(1) Consider what is being funded. Should the university system adapt to present circumstances, e.g by abolishing honours degrees and creating real graduate schools, as I suggested recently in the Times? Disgracefully, the government has rushed headlong into changes in funding without waiting to consider what it should be funding. Equally disgracefuly, Universities UK (the vice-chancellors’ trade union) has made no constructive suggestions for change, but appears to be rendered immobile by a rift between the Russell group VCs who want to grab as much as they can as soon as possible, and other VCs who fear for their existence.
(2) After deciding what form universities should have in the future, you can then go on to discuss how much public money should be used to support the system.
(3) Only after both of these have been done, does it make sense to talk about how you pay back any contribution made by the student (and that contribution should be, at most, no bigger than now).
In their haste to make people pay high fees, the government seems to have got the worst of both worlds. They have devised a scheme that, in the long run, is likely to cost the taxpayer as much as, or even more than, the present system, while at the same time trebling fees to students. It’s hard to imagine greater incompetence than that.
But the question still lurks: why should a postman pay for your university education? My answer is yes, but not 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, inter alia, 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.
See also UCL’s Beautiful Occupation. Students seem to think more clearly about what’s happening than either university management or the government.
December 10 2010, The New York Times points out that tuition fees in the UK will, under this scheme, be double those of public universities in the USA."this new policy is an utter failure."
December 11 2010. An NHS doctor writes
"I was slightly dissapointed when 7/8 of my first year medical students showed up for their last day of teaching at my practice on thursday December 9th. The eighth student was ill, so not one of them was protesting. When I asked them why not they said that in their first week as medical students they were told not to get involved in any protests because even a police caution would mean they might be thrown off the course and almost certainly they wouldn’t get a job. Images of Fascist Spain or Nazi Germany came immediately to mind (I have just read Alone in Berlin)"
December 11 2010. The Guardian reports:
Liberal Democrat grassroots hit back over tuition fees
Richard Grayson, former director of policy, says Liberal Democrats should move closer to Ed Miliband and Labour
That sounds better.
December 12 2010. The Observer reports:
“Police officers ‘tried to stop hospital staff treating injured protester’ Mother of injured student Alfie Meadows said that her son’s life could have been put at risk by the journey to another hospital”.
One problem with the Browne report is that it didn’t consider the whole picture. It looked only at how to fund universities as they are now, and concluded that arts and humanities weren’t worth funding at all. What it failed to do (and to be fair, it wasn’t asked to do) was think what universities should be like. Perhaps that is just as well, given Browne’s views, but it means that the job is only half done.
I have argued that the present system, which was essentially dictated by John Major’s conservative government, is simply not working for an age when 45 percent of kids go into higher education. It makes no sense to decide on a funding mechanism before deciding what sort of university system we want.
Michael Collins is a lecturer in 20th Century history at UCL. On November 23rd he wrote a very interesting piece on the OpenDemocracy web site, Universities need reform – but the market is not the answer. He said
“As students begin a wave of occupations in university campuses across the UK, Michael Collins argues that academics should stand united in determined opposition to government cuts, but at the same time make a positive contribution to thinking about how the existing system of teaching and research can be reformed and restructured.”
His suggestions have much in common with mine, though mine were a bit more specific. I wrote about some concrete proposals in the Times Thunderer column. This is available without pay wall on this blog. (this was on October 11th, before the Browne report was published). .I immediately contacted Collins and we met on 25 November and the same day he published, again on OpenDemocracy, We need a Public Commission of Enquiry on the future of higher education. That was distilled into a letter and I spent most of the next day trying to get some support from scientists. A Saturday close to Christmas isn’t the best time to get responses to emails, but the result was satisfactory nonetheless.
On Monday 29th November the letter appeared in the Daily Telegraph
We need a Public Commission of Enquiry on the future of higher education
It is clear from the scale of last week’s largely peaceful demonstrations across Britain that there is an enormous amount of concern amongst young people over the future of higher education. They are not alone.
A wide range of commentators, politicians, public figures and academics have expressed closely argued reservations about the government’s attempt to rush through changes, the far-reaching consequences of which are so uncertain and potentially so damaging.
Within universities there is considerable unease about what reforms based on the Browne report will mean. How might a ‘supply and demand’ model for arts and humanities funding function in practice? Education and research institutions cannot be set up, shut down and restarted according to market demand. With so much uncertainty about future employment prospects and economic conditions, student numbers will ebb and flow. Higher education needs greater stability.
The Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) a respected independent think tank has pointed out that the government’s proposals for higher education funding “will increase public expenditure through this parliament and into the next”. The income stream from repayments which is supposed to form the long term basis for funding will not come back to the treasury for many years to come.
This weakens the argument that planned changes to higher education funding are necessarily concurrent with a deficit reduction strategy in this parliament. The pledges on university tuition fees made at the 2010 general election mean the mandate for change is weak. We therefore do not believe that present circumstances are propitious for far reaching reforms.
Instead, we propose the government set up a Public Commission of Enquiry, which should include wide consultations with politicians, academics, students, business leaders and others to examine the function and funding of higher education from first principles.
Such an approach would be more likely to produce the consensus required to make reform deliverable and place the future of UK higher education on a sustainable footing.
Sir Harold Kroto KCB FRS, Emeritus Professor of Chemistry, University of Sussex (Nobel Prize 1996)
Sir Christopher Bayly FBA FRSL, Vere Harmsworth Professor of Imperial History, University of Cambridge
Hermione Lee CBE FBA FRSL, Goldsmith’s Professor of English Literature, University of Oxford (1998-2008)
John Dainton FRSA FRS, Sir James Chadwick Professor of Physics, University of Liverpool
Christopher Pelling FBA, Regius Professor of Greek, University of Oxford
Quentin Skinner FBA, Barber Beaumont Professor of the Humanities, University of London
Linda Colley FBA, Shelby M.C. Davis 1958 Professor of History, Princeton University
Jonathan Tennyson FRS, Massey Professor of Physics, University College London
Christopher Wickham FBA, Chair of the Faculty of History, University of Oxford
Richard Carwardine FBA, Rhodes Professor of American History, University of Oxford (2002-2009)
Mary Beard FBA, Professor of Classics, University of Cambridge
Steve Jones, Professor of Genetics, University College London
Stefan Collini FBA, Professor of English Literature, University of Cambridge
David Colquhoun FRS, Professor of Pharmacology, University College London
Robert Gildea FBA, Professor of Modern History, University of Oxford
J. N. Adams FBA, Emeritus Fellow, All Souls College, University of Oxford
The letter in the Telegraph was accompanied by a front page story (despite competition from Wikileaks and the snow).
For a Tory newspaper, it was surprisingly sympathetic.
Meanwhile, the student occupations continue. More of that in the next post.