Best invest in secondary sector

December 12, 1997

Prime minister Tony Blair formally launched his promised Social Exclusion Unit this week. Down the road at the London School of Economics, Beveridge's successors are sharpening up their advice (page 17) and waiting for the call to assist. Meanwhile from the Kennedy School of Government, Dorothy Zinberg sounds a warning (page 14): do not rely too heavily on work, any work, as the solution to social division.

The social exclusion initiative is heavily United States-inspired and work, work, work is seen as the preferred solution. But this week's figures from the Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development (page 8) agree with Professor Zinberg that the issue is more complicated.

Badly paid work, which is what unqualified people get, makes them more exhausted than included and can mean their children lose out on time and attention as well as money. The government's drive is, of course, linked to education. But the OECD has found that, while getting people through secondary education benefits the economy in making them employable and getting them off welfare, it is tertiary education which brings the big jump in individual advantage, especially for women.

They conclude that for governments the best investment is in bringing the mass of the population up to the end of secondary education and that after that, because of the advantage to individuals, there is a "prima facie case for increasing the contribution to tertiary education made by individual beneficiaries".

Yesterday, when the Teaching and Higher Education Bill had its second reading in the House of Lords, the government took the next step in its plan to straitjacket British higher education, limiting both its own and institutions' capacity to raise money from individual beneficiaries.

If the government is serious it must put its money where its mouth is - into those parts of the education system that bring people up to the entrance gate of higher education. The difficult part to swallow - both for government and for higher education - is that unless higher education is to be starved as resources are switched and demand goes on rising, higher education will have to look after itself. What beneficiaries pay must go into their education, and institutions must be able to offer what people want to pay for.

The OECD's final policy recommendation, drawing on this study across the developed nations, is "to strengthen management and leadership capacities at the institutional level, in order to widen the scope for the exercise of autonomy by providers within a policy framework that encourages responsiveness to demand and supports the development of administrative and teaching staff". The bill now in the Lords goes the other way. It should be amended.

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