It is all a matter of taste

Most education is vocational, and quite rightly so, says Alan Ryan

March 12, 2009

Poor John Major was mercilessly mocked for urging a return to basics. I'm hoping the same thing doesn't happen to Universities Secretary John Denham. It's been a slow process, but he seems to be getting the hang of his job at last; he's stopped thinking that he's obliged to throw red meat to his backbenchers in the form of ill-informed attacks on Oxbridge, and he's started suggesting that different sorts of universities should do what they are good at.

And last week, he and Higher Education Minister David Lammy stood shoulder to shoulder against the Public Accounts Committee, and said it wasn't true that the Russell Group had spent £400 million of public money without appreciably increasing the numbers of students they'd admitted from the most deprived backgrounds.

I hate to say it, but my sympathies lie with the PAC. It was clear from the outset that you could throw any amount of money at access initiatives - besides the public funding, Oxbridge colleges spend a lot of their own money, as do virtuous outfits such as the Sutton Trust - and you'd not make much difference.

Nor does the Denham-Lammy claim that there has been a great change in the past three years square with reality. In education, as in most things, the worse-off get what's left when the better-off have slaked their appetites.

The impact of access initiatives has been to increase the numbers applying to Russell Group universities from all sorts of schools and all backgrounds. Applications to Oxbridge have increased by more than a half in the past decade and the makeup of the applicants and incoming students has hardly budged.

The whole subject is deeply confused and confusing, of course. Using "state school" as a proxy for "disadvantaged" is insulting to vast numbers of extremely good state schools, let alone to high-powered places such as Hills Road Sixth Form College in Cambridge or Peter Symonds College in Winchester; more to the point, it ignores the crucial fact that state schools in prosperous areas get their pupils into so-called "top" universities, and state schools in impoverished areas do not.

The reason is that state schools in worse-off areas don't produce enough students with three straight As at A level, and those they do produce are either short of qualifications in languages and maths, or belong disproportionately to better-off families.

Denham has taken on board the fact that it is not snobbery or idleness that explains the shortage of students from underprivileged backgrounds in Russell Group universities.

It's asking a lot to expect him also to take on board the fact that a good deal of the difficulty he will face in pressing on with his campaign to get us all to take vocational education seriously is of his Government's own making.

Tony Blair said he was going to make education, education, education the top three priorities of his Government, but his own tastes ran to celebrity, glamour, flash and almost anything other than an honest day's work for an honest day's pay. No government that establishes a Department of Culture, Media and Sport can be taken seriously when it talks about education.

Denham is plainly right. Talk of "top" universities is deeply unhelpful; the UK needs perhaps 5 per cent of any age cohort to pursue their education as far as being able to make a contribution to research.

And many of that cohort will be happier doing commercial research; only a small proportion of students at any university have the peculiar tastes, talents, stamina and ambition that academic life really suits. If you're an academic, it's easy to flinch when the cleverest chemistry student of her year says she's going into investment banking, but it really is a matter of taste.

Most education is, and quite rightly, vocational in the large sense that it aims to enable young people to earn a living and contribute usefully to their society. "Vocational" in this sense doesn't contrast with "academic" in any sensible understanding of that term.

The issue is how analytically demanding an education may be, how much mathematical or linguistic skill it demands and how far beyond what a secondary school can teach it attempts to go.

Denham shows signs of wanting the post-1992 universities to focus on teaching their traditional clientele and renounce some of their research ambitions.

University of Central Lancashire vice-chancellor Malcolm McVicar says that if Denham gets this one wrong, the subsequent row will make the row over top-up fees look like a tea party; I fear he really means that if Denham gets it right, there will be the most terrible display of wounded vanity and the usual outbreak of self-deceiving nonsense.

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