‘With wit and simplicity, insight and passion, Allen and Ainley illuminate how the promise of “education, education, education” has come to its miserable end- and what can be done to get us out of it’
Ken Jones, Head of Education Department, Goldsmiths College, Univ of London
Another ‘Lost Generation’ will emerge this summer with many graduates, school and college leavers only adding to 900 000 16-24 year olds remaining out of work despite the recession officially ending. With demand for university places once again reaching record levels, including from those having to re-apply after being forced to take an unexpected ‘gap year’, the cuts and ‘consolidation’ in HE will mean even more will be rejected.
So much so predictable, along with recycled media reactions. Yet many young people are not ‘Lost’. They know perfectly well where they are. Despite the rising costs of higher education, many of the current cohort of sixth form and FE students consider that since remaining in full-time education is now the norm, they have little alternative but to apply to university. While those about to complete their degrees are anxious to enter employment, repay student debts and move on with their lives. Both of these tendencies are reinforced by the fact that the 50% not intending to sign up for further study cannot guarantee they will be able to secure any sort of job as even the more ‘routine’ occupations become ‘graduatised’.
In making their decisions, as any teacher dealing with UCAS applicants knows, young people are involved in a collective process, discussing applications and sometimes even synchronising them with their friends. As a result, the current surge in HE applications, just like the increase in the number of graduates registering as postgrads, can be seen as a collective response. Rather than reflecting a new learning culture, young people are increasingly instrumental about their studies. A new pragmatism means they know which qualifications are more likely to provide a future meal ticket, which subjects are now considered ‘soft’, which universities are ‘good’ and so on. For many however, having to work themselves through uni’ in the same ‘Sainsbury’s jobs’ they had in sixth-form, life continues to be like moving up a downwards escalator, where you have to run faster simply to stand still.
Young people will not put up with this state of affairs indefinitely. The anger and frustration channelled into individual determination to be ‘more employable’ than the next person is equally likely to result in depressing feelings of personal inadequacy when officially encouraged strategies of flexibility fail. Let alone as the hangovers from the ‘once in a lifetime experience’ packaged by many campus universities wear off. Paying more for less when fees rise may tip already widespread disillusion into disaffection. As one student put it to us, ‘I grew up believing that an office job was the best job to have, like the stock-brokers in the city and although this was a very good dream, it shouldn’t have been my only dream.’ He speaks for many, especially the one-in-seven doing some sort of Business Study in HE.
Teachers and lecturers, who are increasingly becoming ‘deprofessionalised’ and insecure also find it hard to keep running up their own down escalator. Forced into a ‘provider’ relationship with their student-customers, they know that successfully meeting one set of targets only results in being given another and increasingly wonder how they can escape from the paradox that if too many of their students pass, it will inevitably lead to allegations of ‘dumbing down’, while if success rates in examinations are too low their competence as teachers is immediately questioned. Small wonder if they are attracted to the ‘post-bureaucratic’ ideas of Cameron and Gove.
With education in danger of losing much of its legitimacy for teachers and taught alike, it’s time to develop new alliances between students and staff. These may start with campaigns to defend and extend levels of provision, but they must also move to areas that many still consider the privilege of ‘professionals’ – for example, the curriculum. They should also address other issues on which teacher unions have been defensive for too long, such as school, college and university accountability and the delicate issue of ‘student voice’.
It’s also time for progressive teacher trade unions, like the University and College Union (UCU) and the National Union of Teachers (NUT) who are now realising the importance of working together, to develop real links with student bodies such as the National Union of Students and begin to reclaim education as a genuine and fulfilling activity which all young people together with their teachers can be involved in. In this way we suggest in our new book questioning the ‘Lost Generation’ label, teachers and lecturers can begin to regain their expertise and self-respect.