A divisive strategy

June 7, 2002

Labour is promoting a three-tier system with a white, middle-class elite, argues Patrick Ainley

There is no need for the Higher Education Funding Council for England to survey academic opinion on the long-term future of higher education: the future shape of the sector is already emerging from the present state of further education and the green paper proposals for 14 to 19-year-olds.

The paper proposes dividing all state-school students into three streams at 14-plus, with the Learning and Skills Council sorting out school sixth forms under new powers "to make statutory proposals for the reorganisation of 16-19 provision in an area for determination by the secretary of state".

But the LSC remit also extends to higher education where, with Hefce, it is allocating "core roles" to higher education institutions related to local employment and linked to centres of vocational excellence in further education colleges and other "providers of learning and skills". These competence-based courses will be certified by the new Sector Skills Councils into which the LSC is rationalising the national training organisations. This will redraw the binary line, with an accrediting body run by the LSC for former polytechnics and other teaching universities.

However, this new binary line will run through institutions as well as between them, so there will be a confusion of research centres competing with widening participation courses in the "seamless web" of lifelong learning. What education minister Margaret Hodge calls "a blurring of institutional boundaries" is already far advanced, with 200,000 studying for higher education qualifications in further education colleges.

Meanwhile, above the redrawn binary line, the latest research assessment exercise has concentrated funding on "centres of excellence" even more than before. They recruit "oven-ready" A-starred students from the surviving state-school sixth forms and sixth-form colleges plus private schools and represent the crown of the new tertiary tripartism.

With Hefce endorsing the abolition of the maximum aggregate student number funding system (under which universities are given public money according to controlled allocations of student numbers), the government sees the resulting free market in student places - inevitably with differential fees - as a means to increase, if not widen, higher education participation. This will still not meet prime minister Tony Blair's target for half of 18 to 30-year-olds to have gone through some sort of higher education by 2010, so a Department for Education and Skills internal review is "redefining higher education". Predictably, this will recount as higher education students many of those in school sixth forms, sixth-form colleges and in centres of vocational excellence and the recently announced regional new technology institutes.

Those on the second tier of the new tertiary tripartism proposed in the green paper may also be counted as part of the new higher education. Supposedly this "work-based route" will include one-third of the age range progressing from entry to employment through foundation and then advanced modern apprenticeships to foundation degrees.

This leaves a third "non-advanced further education" tier and the 50 per cent not progressing to any form of higher education. With a recent estimate that 30 per cent of employment requires no formal qualifications, "the failing boys", as Chris Woodhead (former chief inspector of schools in England) called them, are already "sent to college" from 14 - the same age as selection for tiered GCSEs. They join those with special needs, refugees, adults on basic skills courses and others on "learningfare", like Welfare to Work, where benefits are conditional upon attendance.

The reality of this tertiary tripartism cannot be hidden by the green paper proposal for an "overarching certificate" and for renaming non-academic vocational options as "applied". Nor by "a curriculum that is more flexible and responsive to students' individual needs" policed for those "in danger of social exclusion" by personal advisers from the Connexions service.

Clear pathways marked by class, gender and race are already emerging. Indeed, a glance around any university shows, with few exceptions, that the older the institution, the younger, whiter and more conventionally middle-class are its students, leavened only by fee-paying foreign students. This elite higher education for the few combined with a mass further and higher education and training for the many and learningfare for the rest is only confirmed by the latest green paper proposals, by the free-market competition favoured by Hefce and by the privatisation of competing education services that can be anticipated from the General Agreement on Trade in Services to which the government is committed.

Patrick Ainley is reader in learning policy at the School of Education and Training, University of Greenwich.

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