Leader: Look out for that pig in the road

Ministers devising education policy are more in need of L-plates than the students they would put in the driving seat

July 7, 2011

What a great time to be a student. How special young people must feel. The government so values them that it will put them at the heart of the higher education system. However, as with everything in life, if it looks too good to be true, it probably is.

Much in the White Paper is mere window dressing. Students have always been central to higher education; the problem of late has been that academics have been incentivised to do things other than serve their needs. To correct this, the government has, with astonishing sleight of hand, removed the student loan debt from the balance sheet (the White Paper expects total student debt to have doubled to £70 billion by 2017-18) and with a flourish conjured up the student consumer clutching £,000 and a list of demands for "the student experience".

Any experience, however, is personal, and requirements will vary wildly. But £,000 is a lot of money, which is why most 18-year-olds will not be allowed to spend it alone. Parents will be the true consumers of higher education. Expect concerns about employability to become shriller. What parents would want to entrust their still-maturing offspring with such spending power and then find that they return home after three years to take up full-time residence on the sofa? Parents will do their utmost to ensure that this investment results in gainful employment.

Hearteningly, not everyone has been conned by this consumerist vision. Last week's most memorable quote came from the president of the Oxford University Student Union, who said: "Dressing up the White Paper with the language of student choice is like putting lipstick on a pig - it cannot mask the fundamental destruction of our universities."

Exactly what choice are students being given? How can they select a career when they are often unsure what they want to do? Exploring options is a key part of university. Higher education may be about learning about the world, but is it not also about learning about oneself? Surely that is the real student experience.

"Expanding the understanding and imagination of students is a great task," says Simon Blackburn, professor of philosophy at the University of Cambridge, in our cover story. "It can be done only by people whose own understandings and imagination are in good order, which is the reason why good teaching and the desire to contribute to a subject go together."

But the White Paper is silent on research, presumably because the benefit to the student is not immediately obvious. What it offers, however, is encouragement for universities to advertise the teaching qualifications, fellowships and expertise of staff.

The intention to place teaching on a par with research is laudable, but this cosmetic fix short-changes everyone. A document that has been touted as putting students in the "driving seat" sounds good in theory, but there is a reason why young drivers pay high insurance premiums: they have a high risk of coming unstuck because they lack experience of the road ahead. The same lack of preparation and foresight should not plague government.

In getting to this White Paper, half the fun has been watching ministers deal with one disaster only to cause another. Although this has been an amusing distraction, in the words of Miss Piggy, the only pig entitled to wear lipstick: "You have to be going to a pretty awful place if getting there is half the fun."


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