‘Blue Skies Thinking’ Shows ‘Two Brains’ May not be as daft after all!


Patrick Ainley reviews

Blue Skies: New thinking about the future of higher education – a collection of short articles by leading commentators edited by Louise Coiffait, published by Pearson Centre for Policy and Learning     http://pearsonblueskies.com 

 Campaign for the Public University  www.publicuniversity.org.uk

 A  sorry collection

Under New Labour ‘Blue Skies Thinking’ or ‘Thinking the Unthinkable’ was code for floating outrageous free-market ideas to simultaneously frighten people and draw out the opposition to Blair’s ‘public sector reforms’. So, crazy notions like running primary schools with just one qualified teacher supported only by teaching assistants first crawled out from under their stones.

Under the Coalition, the tradition continues only moreso since, as David Willetts – whose first chapter heads this collection – makes clear, today’s fearless Tory leaders regard New Labour as hopeless fudgers. Willetts makes clear he intends ‘to end the fixed, yet illogical, link between degree-awarding powers and teaching’ by reinventing what he mistakenly thinks the Council for National Academic Awards did, examine degrees taught by the polytechnics. ‘This means students at new institutions can obtain degrees or other qualifications from prestigious and well understood institutions. Employers, in particular, are likely to value such clear signals. This is behind my support of initiatives like Pearson’s exciting new BTEC degree [the immediate occasion for the23/5/11conference launching the publication] which will enable people to prove they have higher-level vocational skills.’

Willetts was supported – and sometimes mildly criticised – by various academics and others, who doubtless vied for the opportunity to be considered ‘leading commentators’. These even included some, like James Ladyman, Professor of Philosophy atBristolUniversity, who have opposed ‘the Impact agenda’ for research – though not fees, on this occasion at least.

Digging a hole for himself or for the Vice-Chancellors?

Vice Chancellors had been congratulating themselves on their own cleverness at their near universal move to raise undergraduate fees to (in most cases) very near the new maximum permitted £9000 cap in 2012. (This has the added advantage that no one ‘looks cheap’ and maintains the fiction that all degrees are still equal in quality, as arguably they once were.) VCs did this before to stimey Charles Clarke’s 2003 ‘basically free-market reform’ – as he had hoped it would be but it wasn’t because there was no market since nearly all charged the maximum £3000 then allowed. This time government would have to fork out even more immediate funding in loans for more students on higher fees and have accepted they won’t get it all back. The long-promised White Paper was repeatedly delayed to dig Willetts out of this hole. However, perhaps it was a hole that Willetts had dug for the VCs, predicting exactly what they would do!

Like Schools Minister, Michael Gove, who has been cutting funding for the pseudo-vocational qualifications criticised by Alison Wolf in school sixth forms and sixth form and FE colleges (as reported by Philippe Harari in Post-16 Educator 63 May-June 2011), leaving only academic subjects and science in line with a similarly traditional E-Bacc at 16, Willetts proposes diverting all those working-class students who he and Gove plainly believe should not be in ‘real’ HE, into ‘Apprenticeship-Degrees’ at 18+ (the new school-leaving age in 2015), delivered in FE through the good offices of Pearsons/Edexcel/Longmans.

While the Association of Colleges may have backed away from this particular commercial tie-in, the idea of a ‘standard qualification’ for FE that was once held out for two-year Foundation ‘degrees’ plainly appeals to FE bosses. Especially as it promises ‘degree’ awarding powers for FECs independent of franchising HE-approved HE in FE = c. one-in-ten of all undergraduate students, including F‘d’s.

More importantly for Willetts, he can do the two things he needs to dig himself out of his hole: reduce HE student numbers and reduce fees. We may call the likes of the new BTEC qualification, ‘Apprenticeship-Degrees’ (because they may top up ‘apprenticeships’ that begin for what Chris Woodenhead called ‘the naughty boys sent to college’ at 14 or 16 and even be topped up in turn by those few who complete them by one-year conversion courses in ‘real HE’. ‘Apprentices’ might even be sponsored and possibly paid to do this by employers – or, more likely, by state subsidies for their cheap labour, replaying 1980s Training Without Jobs.

No more ‘fudging’!

At c.£2000 p.a. such a ‘degree’ would certainly attract applicants from the Million+ former-polytechnics and the 94Group of mainly campus universities, perhaps forcing them to reduce their exorbitant fees for the same old academic modules mixed with varieties of Business Study that HE proposes to continue to offer alongside the Science, Technology Engineering and Medicine universities will still be funded for. And/or go into the business of selling their own two-year degrees, as other contributors suggest, by teaching over four terms instead of the current 100 days in three terms a year undergraduate average.

VCs had hoped their just-below-the-Russell Group max would attract students who may prefer to stay local and play safe, instead of chancing their arms on getting the 1st or 2.1 needed to have any hope of secure employment. (The Russells meanwhile can charge what they like and only await their chance to do so in a completely free market, as recommended by Browne but reportedly vetoed by the Lib-Dems – more ‘fudging’, as far as Willetts-Gove are concerned!) Competition with ‘FE degrees’ would also force HE institutions to renegotiate their relations with their ‘partner colleges’ to give them more of a share in remaining HE in FE fees.

Certainly, undergraduates are not going to go on paying through the nose for what one of the conference papers describes as ‘a middle class shibboleth…leave home and explore yourself through study, extra-curricular activities and revelry; meet a circle of friends with whom you’ll make the transition into stable, well-rewarded and connected professional careers; get drunk with those university friends and possibly marry one of them.’ (Matt Grist and Julia Margo of the ‘Think-Tank’ Demos, another of the main movers behind the Conference, as they were behind much of Bliar’s ‘Blue Skies Thinking’.) One, there are very few ‘stable, well-rewarded and connected professional careers’ and, two, like many other young victims subsumed by the alcohol and mass entertainment industries, school-leavers can go out from home to binge – if they can afford it!

Meanwhile, the other grouping of ‘Alliance’ universities, also touted their brand at the conference by claiming to be ‘the UK’s leading business-engaged universities’. Presumably, they think their ‘links with industry’ will attract students wanting to earn as they learn – or at least volunteer for unpaid work placements and internships as part of their courses to escape the qualified-but-inexperienced graduate Catch-22. (Just as University Technical Colleges re-run Kenneth Baker’s 1980s City Technology Colleges with little more chance of success but at least promising a route for school science sixth-formers to progress to STEM subjects in their sponsoring universities.)

For True Believers like Willetts and Gove, all this opens up possibilities of a real market in HE in which ‘diverse quality’ is reflected directly in price. Private providers can also come in, including mass-market publishers like Pearsons/Edexcel/Longmans providing standardised e-texts and tests to the unqualified instructors who pass them on to their students – the Open University (as was) this is not! Thus, studentless Marie Celeste colleges and universities (public or private and all points between) will offer distance-learning from franchised virtual hubs to on-line students working part-time and hoping to secure para-professional employment at best.

Just as with the proposed health service reforms, government promises a service ‘free at the point of delivery’ – you pay later if you can afford it so that the fee is a defacto voucher and not so different either from the graduate tax that Labour and the NUS favour. Meanwhile, Gove’s talk of ‘fair funding’ for schools will soon see a voucher for ‘bog-standard’ provision that parents who can afford it can add to and so buy into competing and increasingly privatised provision – as they do now through private schools, tutors and still more cramming. (Even Keith Joseph could see this would end up with the state subsidising the private schools but the ideologues driving Coalition policy don’t care any more!)

Supposedly, all this competition will restart social mobility – so that we are being sold academic selection of ‘bright working-class children’ and a return to grammar schooling as progressive policies. Society will then revert to Gove’s good old days when everyone knew their place and education kept them there, before Robbins disowned the eugenics inherent in the 11-plus and started the expansion of HE, while comprehensive schools and progressive primaries also tried to change society through education.

A few flies in the ointment

Only there hasn’t been any real upward social mobility since the end of the post-war boom in the 1970s and the proffered professionalisation of the proletariat through widening participation to higher education is now seen to be as illusory as – in the wake of the Credit Crunch – the dream that home ownership could secure middle-class status for all. Employers who are busily outsourcing, downsizing and deskilling, don’t want apprenticeships and the youth labour market has ‘imploded’, as Wolf says three times in her report. So, in a world that is oiling its way to self-destruction, the old social democratic nostrums – ‘expand GDP and become better educated, trained and qualified’ – no longer apply, even as Ed Miliband seeks to revive them in his pledge to the nation of a better future for successive generations.

That this is not going to happen has been grasped by the more radical of the student resistance, infused with the tactics as well as the ideology of the alter-globalisation movement and the climate camps. They recognise that the only future is in no-growth and they have begun to think for themselves with those of their teachers who will join them of an alternative to the more of the same represented by the ‘Blue Skies Thinking’ of the free-marketeers.

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