Debt, doubt and diversity

November 4, 1994

Jim Murphy says the commission has identified the right problems but wants to talk about the answers.

It was on a fanfare of publicity that the Commission for Social Justice report was launched. Undoubtedly, there is a pressing need for a reappraisal of our entire public spending priorities. After all, it is 50 years since any political party, in or out of Government, dared to think there could be a better way.

The commission is regarded as Beveridge revisited. Beveridge comes from a time when my grandfather discovered there was no place for him in further or higher education. Access is still a burning issue. The real question arising from the commission is not whether the report was needed, but rather, why was it necessary to wait two generations to address this problem?

While attempting to paint a bigger picture, the authors have at least sketched an outline of a future education system. In so doing they have re-emphasised the role of education in delivering a changed society. However, the education section of the document has to do far more than generate a fanfare of publicity. Its real challenge is to guarantee fairer education for more people.

Writing in The THES last week the commission's chair, Sir Gordon Borrie, said that the report set out a "radical blueprint for a better Britain". Many students, like others in society, know only too well the inherent weaknesses in the current Government policy. While correctly identifying the problems, questions do exist as to the validity of some of the commission's suggested solutions.

The commission recognises the problems faced by students: "The current combination of student loans and a grant frozen in real terms does not provide an adequate income."

For thousands of students their greatest concern is not the problems of submitting their next essay but rather successfully paying next week's rent. Student debt is at a record level. Recent research by the National Union of Students highlighted the scale of this problem, with average debts for students in the 18 to 21 age group approaching Pounds 2,500. Debt levels rose to Pounds 4,500 for students in the age group over 26.

The major concern arising from the study is the difficult choices that students are having to make. Choices over accommodation, which course books not to buy, how many hours to take out of studying for paid employment, the regularity and nature of dietary choices these are the real effects of current policy. The viability of the commission's report on funding must be judged on its ability to enhance the quality of student life. This includes everything from the contents of a student's pocket to the contents of a library.

The report also looks to the future structures of an educational system which continues to guarantee expansion. The enhancement of existing credit transfer systems and innovative ideas for new mechanisms present potentially exciting opportunities. The priority given to the needs of mature entrants, currently on the fringes of the education debate, is particularly progressive.

The commitment to lifelong learning is very welcome. The advocacy of a Learning Bank, to fund lifelong learning on a fair and flexible basis, is also an idea of some potential which the National Union of Students will examine in detail.

The commission's report, while acknowledging the need for such policies, needs to add specifics to the positive statements of intent.

The report stresses that academic achievement leads to economic empowerment -- a statement as true of each individual as it is of the nation as a whole. Future considerations by the commission should also concentrate on the ethical understanding of why society has a responsibility to retrain those whose skills society deems obsolete. Not to reskill those who are vocationally impotent is socially incompetent. In the months ahead the NUS intends to articulate a vision for the future of education.

For the NUS such a plan must be student centred. Policies should have as their goal meeting the expanding needs of an increasingly diverse student population. Vitally they should also be structured to suit the educational aspirations of the have-nots so that they can have real opportunities.

These are some of the challenges ahead. The Commission for Social Justice report is a document for consideration by the Labour Party, no more and no less. Undoubtedly there are elements of the report which will quite rightly gain support within Labour's ranks. Sir Gordon considers his report a blueprint for the future I sincerely hope it will not metamorphose itself without amendment into Labour's policy.

If this really is the foundation of a new Beveridge report for a new Labour party then much discussion lies ahead. I, for one, look forward to pulling up my chair to the consultation table.

Jim Murphy is president of the National Union of Students.

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