In a contribution for the Council for the Defence of British Universities,Patrick Ainley reviews an essay collection aiming to rethink the purpose of tertiary level learning.
The Centre for Labour and Social Studies (CLASS) is a think tank connected to the trades unions combining ‘grassroots voices with intellectually compelling analysis…to ensure policy is on the side of everyday people’. Its director, prospective Labour MP, Faiza Shaheen, declares in her foreword that ‘this report provides a new vision and route map to recast our education system’.
The editors, Sol Gamsu and Richard Hall, see an opportunity for this in the Labour Party’s 2017 commitment to free education in universities and colleges. As they rightly say, this is ‘an essential first step towards rolling back the marketisation of our system of further and higher education’ to which they seek to add detail ‘showing what a progressive plan could look like’. However, this aim is vitiated by the formulaic presentation of their chapters which follow convention in seeking to cover all bases without, however, any contribution from anyone who actually works in further education (FE).
An alternative model for democratic ownership
The nearest the collection comes to this is Vicky Duckworth and Rob Smith’s presentation of the FE Transforms project from the University and College Union (UCU) to show the colleges’ potential contribution to upward social mobility – especially for older learners. Other chapters address violence against women students and staff, the problems faced by disabled students and staff, as well as lack of representation – including in the curriculum – for ethnic minority students and staff.
These are all important aspects of overall reform of post-16/18 education but do not present the vision or ‘progressive plan’ promised in Gamsu and Hall’s introduction, although Hall’s essay advocates the transformative power of a cooperative approach and Jana Bacevic proposes ways of distributing research funding and genuinely accessible academic publishing to replace the ‘toxic research culture’ fostered by the REF. Only Dave Ridley essays an alternative model for democratic and local ownership of universities, but his bottom-up approach needs to be complemented by top-down regional reform relating schools, colleges and universities beyond changes at the top ‘cascading down’, as Sol Gamsu puts it, to colleges and schools.
Rather, a shared vision of education needs to build on existing public understandings of primary schooling as foundational for comprehensive secondary schooling with a conception of entitlement to tertiary level further and higher adult continuing education and training full- or part-time as and when required lifelong in or out of employment. The question then becomes what sort of a general education in primary and secondary state schools best prepares citizens to participate in and take control of a future that includes such tertiary level learning ranging from research to recreation.
The open access foundation year isn’t a universal model
Unlike the academic National Curriculum, which functions as a giant sorting machine rewarding, largely through written examinations, what it recognises as accomplishments of more or less expensively acquired cultural capital, this would not present the hierarchy of competing schools, colleges and universities with the impossible goal of universal upward social mobility in conditions of general downward social mobility.
Thus McLellan, Pettigrew and Sperlinger’s ‘University for Everyone’ modelled on the open access foundation year in arts and humanities they run at Bristol University cannot be generalised to all universities. This is not because of the estimated cost of $5bn a year from an all-age graduate tax, but because tertiary level learning is not comprehensive but specialist in the development of expertise. Nor do they recognise that most undergraduates do not share their teachers’ belief in learning for its own sake and are only willing to take on exorbitant debt for often unsatisfactory provision in distant hopes of securing semi-professional employment. This also explains the repeated failure of ‘vocational’ degrees when most employers value academic ones more highly; similarly, so-called ‘apprenticeships’ and the revamped T-line qualifications currently being inflicted on secondary schools and colleges.
Recognising this would re-orientate the suggestions for transforming the tertiary education sector that are presented in this collection towards playing a part in a National Education Service worthy of the name.