All against poor policy

January 10, 2008

It was heartening to see that you have finally come off the fence against the Department for Innovation, University and Skills' attack on adult and part-time higher education by withdrawing public funding for those with equivalent or higher learning qualifications (Leader, 21 December). This means that the education press has joined the Confederation of British Industry, the trade unions, the House of Lords (16 speakers against the proposal; Lord Triesman, the Minister for Students, in favour), the vast majority of vice-chancellors and all professionals involved with lifelong learning. In fact, I have only heard one voice in support of Universities Secretary John Denham and Higher Education Minister Bill Rammell, from the right-wing market fundamentalist vice-chancellor of a private university.

The paucity of ministers' arguments is depressing. They consistently misrepresent the measure as withdrawing funding only for second degrees when they know the impact will reach far further. They mouth platitudes about the wider benefits of learning while intent on narrowing public support to supplying the nation's supposed labour market needs despite growing evidence that the strategy will not achieve the ends sought. In response to the growing chorus of criticism, they promise special support for The Open University and Birkbeck, University of London. This ignores the substantial pressure on all higher education providers to excise provision that will suffer the disproportionate impact of ELQs on top of existing fee arrangements that discriminate against part-time learners (they have to pay upfront) and public support that continues to fail to make good the admitted higher administrative costs of part-time learning.

The list of exceptions - which presumably will be expanded slightly after the phoney consultation (on means not ends) - itself indicates some awareness of the likely impact on short-course and part-time provision, arising from yet another doomed government attempt at micro-management.

Meanwhile, the Higher Education Funding Council for England itself seems to have escaped all blame, although we understand that it generated the original policy option for ministers and presumably failed to point out its deeply negative implications for widening participation, the Leitch report and work-based learning. Perhaps we should expect some backlash from wounded ministers.

There is little doubt that Hefce and ministers have tried to engage with "non-standard" provision in recent years. But funding policy remains overwhelmingly based on full-time, on-campus 18-year-old entry, and this policy will accentuate that in the face of strong contrary evidence about real student demand, not to mention the benefits to the Treasury of encouraging learning by people paying taxes.

And, sadly, your suggestion of "a Christmas Eve announcement rescinding the proposed changes" was not taken up. Making mistakes is human; good leaders admit errors and rethink.

Daniel Vulliamy
Senior lecturer
Centre for Lifelong Learning
University of Hull.

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