Age of reason?

After 18, the government becomes very confused about education, says David Colquhoun

January 2, 2011

We hear a lot about lifelong education, and a good thing too. But we have a government that seems to think that socially useful learning ends at age 18. This age is a watershed in official attitudes to education particularly in two areas, religious discrimination and education as a public good.

In 1871, the Universities Tests Act made it illegal for a university to discriminate among applicants on the basis of religious beliefs (or lack thereof) and forced the universities of Oxford, Cambridge and Durham to follow in the footsteps of University College London. For the past 140 years, it has been unimaginable that any university would allow religious discrimination.

In stark contrast, in 2010, religious discrimination (and the accompanying social discrimination) in entry to primary and secondary schools is not only legal, but is actively encouraged by the government in relation to faith schools. It was a trend that got worse while Tony Blair was prime minister. Michael Gove, the Conservative education secretary under the current coalition government, promised even more religious schools. Why the rules for those who are under 18 should be diametrically opposite to those that hold for people over 18 is baffling.

It is equally baffling (and perhaps a partial explanation) that universities are not regarded as part of education at all by this government and its immediate predecessors. Universities are governed by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, not the Department for Education. Education is not regarded as a continuum or as a lifelong project: it’s something you do at school.

The government has managed the remarkable feat of devising a system for universities in which everybody loses. The new tuition fees arrangement saves taxpayers little or no money, according to the Higher Education Policy Institute. It also leaves universities worse off. And these two things it does while tripling the debt incurred by students. It’s hard to believe that such monumental ineptitude has motives that are other than ideological. The virtual privatisation of teaching after the age of 18, particularly in the humanities, was a step too far even for Margaret Thatcher.

The only-too-brief debate on these changes to higher education focused almost entirely on how to repay an enormous debt. That was the wrong starting point. The first thing that should have been decided was what sort of university system we want. It is arguable that the honours degree system is unsuited to an age when half the population enrols in higher education. A general first degree at a teaching-only institution would be much cheaper, and it would be a social leveller. If that were followed, for those who wanted and merited it, by a properly taught graduate school (as opposed to the present PowerPoint-teaching charades) led by active researchers at research-intensive institutions, the standard of education would be increased. There might be some problems with such a system, but they were not even discussed before rushing the changes through.

The organisation that should have been at the forefront of fresh thinking, Universities UK, was paralysed as the elite vice-chancellors, mostly in favour of maximum fees, wrangled with their post-1992 peers who saw themselves at greater risk. The result was total inaction. They may have been on leadership courses, but they failed to lead. The elite vice-chancellors are now finding that even tuition fees of £9,000 a year will leave them worse off than before. They really should have thought a bit more about how to adapt to tertiary education for half the population rather than trying to fund things as they are at the moment.

Whatever the system, the question will always arise: Why should a postman pay for your university education? My answer is that he should pay, but not very much. Such people should pay because, although they may not get any direct benefit themselves, their children certainly may. The fairest, most progressive tax is income tax. If you are a postman, or indeed a graduate, on a low income, you shouldn’t pay much tax, so you won’t pay much for other people’s university education.

All this is clear in primary and secondary education. I can see no reason for the sudden change in attitude to, and funding of, education that happens when you reach 18.

I see every reason why kids should be angry. I doubt that we have seen the last of the riots. I hope not, anyway.

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