Back to the bunker in UK higher education

In September of last year, the UK’s Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills wrote to members of the Higher Education Funding Council for England. In his letter, John Denham declared that the government would cease funding for students who take university and college courses for qualifications at the same or lower levels than those they possess already.

This new policy will effectively kill off ‘continuing education’, or the idea that people can or should train and retrain through their working lives, and thereby adapt to market conditions. It is certainly not about cutting funding for middle-aged professionals in a state of spiritual crisis who wish to learn about pottery or basket weaving.

The government’s proposal met with an enormous hue and cry from across the educational establishment and elsewhere. My friend Dr Peter Ryley – a lifelong learning specialist at the University of Hull – quoted at the time from the words of Denham’s predecessor as Education Secretary, David Blunkett. In a green paper titled “The Learning Age”, Blunkett wrote:

“People learn for a variety of reasons; it could be to change career, to increase earning power, to update skills, or simply for the joy of learning itself”

Ryley has written at length about this issue, and I refer you to his blog for more details.

The House of Lords debated the proposals at the begining of December. To be more accurate, they savaged them, including from the government benches. Here are a few extracts from that debate.

Baroness Blackstone (Professor Tessa Blackstone, economist):

“I regret having to say this, but I passionately believe that a little less haste and a bit more consultation would go a very long way, so I hope that my noble friend will be able to reconsider the matter”.

Believe me, this is strong stuff, coming from the ermined-robed ones. And it gets stronger…

Lord Putnam (David Putnam, oscar-winning film director):

“This is a bad policy; it is a policy that is based on a false choice and, like all false choices, it inevitably results in a poor decision.”

Lord Morgan (Professor Kenneth Morgan, historian):

“…the Government have championed many admirable principles in higher education and I fear that this policy on ELQs runs counter to almost all of them. …The deckchairs will be rearranged but the iceberg will still be there. …The proposal will be deeply damaging to many English universities.”

Lord Griffiths (Dr Leslie Griffiths, Christian priest):

“I speak in the name of all those who redirect their lives and seek appropriate skills for the new direction that their life takes, my two sons included; they started abortively with bad careers advice from their schools but ended up finding their way, retooled themselves for their jobs and are now happily ensconced in them. In the name of all that is decent – I know that my noble friends on the Front Bench are decent if nothing else – I do ask for a reconsideration.”

Government and parliament can easily override the Lords, but when the latter speak out like this, the government is wise to listen. And there were some early indications that the government was listening, both to peers of the realm and others who called for a rethink.

Part of this lobbying took the form of an online petition hosted on the prime minister’s website.

I signed this petition as it concerns a subject close to my heart. After a decade working as a scientist at PhD level, I came up against a career brick wall. In 2003 I packed in research, but without much idea of what to do next. I considered various retraining options, and nearly ended up studying to become a luthier! At that time I might have received state funding for the course, but at least part of the fees would have come from a commercial career development loan. Under the government’s current proposals, aspiring second-career artisans would get nothing.

As it happens, I chose instead to use my writing skills and become a freelance science journalist, with no need of formal qualifications. But the second oldest (and most contemptible) profession after prostitution is not for everyone in my position.

With a dynamic economy that relies on a multi-skilled workforce, there must be opportunities for adults to retrain through their working lives. I also believe that retired citizens should be encouraged and enabled to learn, even if this has no tangible benefit to the economy.

Anyway, enough of this background and educational autobiography. The government has today responded to the online petition, but the way in which it has done so says much about the poor linguistic and reasoning abilities of our current political leaders.

Here is the government’s response in full:

“The Government believes that its decision to re-target £100 million of taxpayer support away from those studying second Higher Education qualifications at an equivalent or lower level to those who are entering higher education for the first time will help improve our skills base. We want to widen participation and increase the numbers of places for students aiming for a first degree. At the moment there is less of an incentive for institutions to reach out and recruit new talent within the workforce. That is going to change which is why we are redirecting some funding away from supporting institutions teaching students studying for a second degree towards first time students. We have consulted on the best way to implement this policy and we will announce the final details of how we will make these changes early in 2008.”

Not only is this a particularly turgid and ungrammatical piece of prose, it is pure sophistry. One sentence in particular stands out, and I isolate it here in all its ghastliness:

“At the moment there is less of an incentive for institutions to reach out and recruit new talent within the workforce.”

What on earth does this mean? I could hazard a guess, but might well be off the mark. To me it reeks of ageism: the belief that career beginnings are only for the young, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. It is a belief grounded in current employment practice, but one surely not to be encouraged. Especially when the government not long ago signed up to European legislation that outlaws age discrimination in the workplace.

Whether or not my interpretation is current, it is a damning indictment of this government, and utterly depressing with it. Peter Ryley, the big fat wag that he is, refers to the offending words as “Mc A level English”. I think that rather unfair on school students, but I take his point.

When asked for his overall reaction to the government statement, Peter replied:

“I have seen a vast amount of material during the course of the
campaign. At one point there seemed to a be a possibility of sanity
prevailing, and at least a partial rethink. They were beginning to
think that they got it wrong, but were not quite sure how to extricate
themselves. Instead they have gone back to the bunker mentality.”

I need say no more on the matter.