Leader: Where is the subject focus?

March 18, 2005

Week by week, Labour's pre-election blueprint for higher education is taking shape. The White Paper on 14-to-19 education has set the stage at entry level, and now the agreements published by the Office for Fair Access have outlined the financial help that will be available to students who might be deterred by top-up fees. Both exercises are intended, in part, to reassure timorous voters. But in the process they may entrench dangerous trends in student choices and, therefore, in the labour market.

By rejecting key elements of the Tomlinson report (page 11), ministers were seen to perpetuate the academic/vocational divide in secondary, further and higher education. Whatever doubts they may have had about the practicalities of a single diploma incorporating A-level and vocational qualifications, they are trying to have their cake and eat it in claiming that separate development will lead to parity of esteem between the two types of course. In the long run, a system will surely evolve in which the contrast is less stark and there is more opportunity for students to mix and match, but this Government is not prepared to take the risk.

Most of this week's access agreements (pages 6-7) also err on the side of caution. Only three universities and four colleges have strayed from the Pounds 3,000 maximum fee, and most follow a similar pattern in their bursary provision. The figures inevitably vary according to the circumstances of the institution, but the accent is on straightforward financial assistance to those from the poorest families. That is as it should be, but the low proportion of institutions making any distinction between subjects represents a lost opportunity. Early talk of incentives to attract students into struggling areas of science or modern languages has been followed through in only 10 per cent of universities and colleges.

Neither in the 14-to-19 proposals (including Tomlinson's own) nor in the access agreements is there any sign of the focus on science that the Chancellor proclaimed in his Budget (pages 2-3). The Higher Education Funding Council for England is still deliberating on what can be done for subjects of "national strategic importance", but no money has been earmarked for an initiative. Without curricular reform and financial incentives of the type used to revive shortage subjects in schools, the drift away from science and languages is certain to continue.

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