Squeeze them til they squeek

My old friend from university days Martin Veart has expressed his unease with the Liberal Democrats’ support for higher education cuts in England. Martin is an active member of the party which is the junior member of the UK coalition government.

Martin fears that we will end up with…

"…a core of excellent and well-financed colleges are surround by a hinterland of the mediocre or frankly rubbish offering near worthless degrees."

Surely he means, "…a core of culturally elitist institutions surrounded by a mass of less wealthy colleges with a much broader demographic, and educational quality ranging from the outstanding to the mediocre."

Martin and I attended a ‘provincial’ university of superb quality. Aberystwyth may provide cheap seats, in comparison with many other colleges, but it is a traditional university of renown, and the degrees it awards are far from worthless.

Some of the more noddy colleges will likely go to the wall under the new regime, but they were the product of a massive and ill-considered expansion of the UK university sector under the previous government, and if they cease trading they will not be missed. On the other hand, I can see many of the newer universities thriving in a more open educational market, especially if they offer rigorous degree courses with a vocational component that provides real value to students when they enter the world of work. I have an idea: let’s call them “polytechnics”.

We should also discard the silly notion that self-improvement requires full-time attendance for three years from the tender age of 18 at a traditional university. If anything justifies ring-fencing in today’s uncertain academic climate, it is adult continuing education that provides an environment conducive to mid-life intellectual fulfilment, together with practical avenues for career change.

We could also learn from the American system, in which there is a mass of so-called liberal arts colleges providing a tertiary education for tens of millions of young and not-so-young people, many of whom go on to great things by virtue of their talents and the support and inspiration provided by college mentors.

Not a lot can be done about the truly elitist universities, either here or across the pond, short of a Henry VIII-style dissolution and mass shooting of Russell Group vice chancellors and Ivy League presidents. But enough of such violent revolutionary fantasies. I do not fear the establishment of a pseudo-free market in higher education, as long as we can change the culture as well as funding arrangements, and establish checks and balances that benefit students from working class and other low-income families.

Little more can be said until we’ve digested and analysed policy details that have yet to be published. I shall refrain from passing judgement on the hypocrisy of Liberal Democrat MPs who previously pledged to cap student fees, but in government have changed their tune. They are politicians, after all, so one cannot reasonably claim to be shocked by such behaviour.

There may be legitimate criticisms to be made of the government’s anticipated changes to the higher education funding system, but much of what is being said in the public arena is pure hyperbollocks. If there is anything truly mediocre, it is the wretched “squeezed middle” beloved of Guardian readers and New Labour redux. Death to the petite-bourgeoisie!