Two-Brains Speak with Forked-Tongue

Patrick Ainley

Post-16 Educator  Issue 63  May/June 2011

 ‘Two-brains’ Willetts, the Tory HE Minister, is schizophrenic. One brain acknowledges that from 2012 an undergraduate borrowing £9,000 a year plus maintenance loans ranging from £3,575 to £5,288 (depending on their family’s income) could end up, once they earn over £21,000, indebted up to £83,000 at current rates of interest on their fees and loans for those earning above average incomes. This is by any other name a graduate tax, which the new NUS leadership has again joined Labour in supporting. It will wipe out most of the purely speculative £100,000 lifetime earning ‘graduate premium’ over non-graduates that new entrants to HE mortgage their futures in hopes of obtaining. But Willetts’ other brain declares this is ‘by and large a good deal’! (BBC News17/3/11).

 Meanwhile, as in 2003, Vice Chancellors again congratulate themselves on their cleverness in raising fees to the max so there is no market and government will have to fork out even more immediate funding for HE. The long-promised White Paper has been repeatedly delayed to dig Willetts out of this hole. Will all prospective students pay though? Or only those who are rich enough not to need loans and for whose parents £9,000 a year is cheap compared with private school fees?

 The latest High Fliers’ research report (April 2011), covering only what The Times listing calls the ‘good universities’, records over half of the 12,658 final-year English undergraduates surveyed saying ‘they would not have come to university if their tuition fees had been £9,000 per annum’ and ‘a third would have been put off doing a degree by fees of £6,000 per annum’.

The (by implication) ‘not good’ universities may hope these students will attend locally at them instead – but not on fees of near £9,000 they won’t! Perhaps they will go part-time so more staff work evenings and weekends on short-term contracts in case the courses don’t recruit. Continuing professional development by increasingly virtual distance learning could also be part of this race to the bottom, as may two-year degree courses taught over four terms annually – if students will pay more for less! Or they could be attracted by ‘FE degrees’, whether as two-year Foundations for access to para-professional occupations such as teaching assistants, carers and policepersons, or if FE and other providers are given degree awarding powers instead of franchising from their HE partners.

 Or, instead of uni’, school-leavers (at 18 in 2015! 17 in 2013!) might do the apprenticeships that all the political Parties – and Alison Wolf’s March 2011 report on vocational education – talk so much about. These will predictably be offered in FE in competition with private training agencies since most employers – especially private sector ones – don’t need apprenticeships, even if subsidised by the state to run them. In ‘a youth labour market that has imploded’ as Wolf says (three times in her report!), it will soon be clear that these are ‘Apprenticeships Without Jobs’, replaying the Training Without Jobs of the 1970s and ’80s. Similarly, their graduate equivalents – internships, offered by the Coalition’s new attention to ‘the squeezed middle’ (rather than New Labour’s previous focus on the NEETs – those Not in Education Employment or Training), also do not guarantee employment.

 Perhaps this is where Willett’s madness has method as Nina Power reports on Facebook (24/4) that behind its new pay-wall The Times on-line reports private companies ready to run failing universities and colleges as HEFCE will no longer be allowed to bail them out. Unprofitable courses will then be scrapped and running costs drastically reduced as vice-chancellors and principals pay private providers to take control ‘under contracts lasting ten years or more’.

 These developments will redraw the binary line, only higher up the system since – in a drastic resolution of the arts-science divide – funding from 2012 will be increasingly restricted over four years only to the STEM subjects of Science Technology Engineering and Medicine, leaving Arts and Humanities to wealthy overseas students and others seriously rich enough to pay for them at surviving campus universities and reduced Russells. As the Campaign for a Public University said in its submission to the House of Commons Select Committee on Business Innovation and Skills, ‘a new divide in education will emerge, with universities increasingly responsible for creating a division within the middle class by distinguishing an upper layer from other, lower middle-class positions’.

 Despite the inevitable impending closures and mergers, at most universities an air of unreality clings to the so-called community of scholars. Many academics in the ‘good universities’ seem to believe they can carry on regardless, while most in the ‘bad’ are so ground down they can’t afford to look far ahead. All therefore continue with ‘discourse as usual’ – writing papers, attending conferences and meetings, marking and teaching while applying for research funding there is no chance of getting, without noticing the pointlessness of so much continued frenetic activity as inordinate hopes are invested in the assurances of vice chancellors that all will be well if we all ‘keep calm and carry on’. It won’t be!

 Clearly, the Tories have the view that too many working-class kids have got into higher education. So, as I have written before, ‘The government’s reception of the Browne Review in the context of the Comprehensive Spending Review, soon to be codified in the White Paper, marks the end, not only of higher education as it has developed since the war but – more broadly – of the whole effort [from the official introduction of comprehensive schools in 1965 on] to reform society through education.’ Now education from primary to post-graduate schools is returned to its post-war purpose of keeping society as it is, not trying to change it.

The worst case is if parents and young people buy into this fantasy – paying more for the empty qualifications that a privatised system will sell them. However, what else are school leavers expected to do? The answer to this question remains the strongest argument against raising fees, scrapping EMAs and for returning to free post-compulsory education for all.

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