Education is losing its legitimacy – time for staff and students to step in


Martin Allen and Patrick Ainley   Education Guardian  13/04/10

Another “lost generation” will emerge this summer as many graduates, school and college leavers are added to the 900,000 16- to 24-year-olds out of work, despite the recession having supposedly ended. With demand for university courses again reaching record levels, including from those re-applying after being forced to take an unexpected gap year, the cuts and consolidation in higher education mean even more students will be denied a place at university.

So much so predictable. 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 further education students consider that since remaining in full-time education is now the norm, they have little alternative but to apply to university. Those about to complete their degrees, meanwhile, are anxious to enter employment, repay student debts and move on with their lives.

Both of these tendencies are reinforced by the fact that there is no guarantee the 50% of 18-year-olds not intending to sign up for further study will be able to find any sort of job, as even more routine occupations become “graduatised”.

All political parties are promising apprenticeships, but since most private employers don’t need them, FE colleges will end up delivering them for public services which, as a result of cuts, won’t need them either.

Rather than opt for such “apprenticeships without jobs”, many will stay in the sixth form and try for HE. As any teacher dealing with university applicants knows, young people are involved in a collective process, discussing applications and sometimes even synchronising them with their friends.

So the current surge in applications for undergraduate degrees, just like the increase in the number registering as postgraduates, is in many respects a collective response. Young people 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 university in the same jobs they had in sixth form, life continues to be like moving up a down escalator – 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 job offers fail to materialise.

Paying more for less when fees rise may tip the already widespread disillusion with the vocational promises of education into disaffection. As one student put it: “I grew up believing that an office job was the best job to have, like the stockbrokers 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 business-related degrees.

Teachers and lecturers, who are also becoming deprofessionalised and increasingly insecure, find it hard to keep running up their own down escalator. Forced into a so-called provider relationship with their student-customers, they know that successfully meeting one set of targets only results in being given another.

Schools and colleges increasingly wonder how they can escape from the paradox that if too many students pass, it will inevitably lead to allegations of dumbing down, while if exam success rates are too low, their teachers’ competence is immediately questioned. Small wonder that some might be attracted by Tory promises to replace centrally imposed targets with simpler market-driven competition.

Instead, with education in danger of losing much of its legitimacy for teachers and the 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 such as the curriculum. They should also address other questions about 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 teaching unions such as the University and College Union and the National Union of Teachers, which are now realising the importance of working together, to develop real links with 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 teachers and lecturers can begin to regain their expertise and self-respect.

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