Blunkett urges universities to stand up to government

Former education secretary David Blunkett has challenged universities to stand up to coalition ministers if they have concerns over government reforms.

March 7, 2013

Source: Alamy

In a speech at the University of Bedfordshire, he highlighted recent complaints by the University of Cambridge and other institutions over plans to scrap the AS level qualification, pointing out that education secretary Michael Gove has already bowed to pressure and reneged on plans to reform GCSEs.

“There has been a welcome backing down on unworkable changes in GCSEs, but a continuing muddle in respect of AS- and A-level changes,” he said.

“Reform is necessary…but not at the expense of breadth of experience, opportunity to experiment or a reduction in emphasis on creativity.”

Mr Blunkett, education secretary from 1997 to 2001, also criticised the list of “facilitating subjects” produced by the Russell Group to describe those disciplines it considers most desirable.

The list has been slammed by some headteachers, who say it is putting students off studying subjects that do not make the grade.

“The so called ‘facilitating A levels’ may reflect an important emphasis on STEM [science, technology, engineering and maths] subjects, but sadly reflect also a bygone and backward-looking approach to the future of post-16, and higher, education,” he said.

“Of the three A levels that I obtained by hard graft at evening school, law and economics do not appear in the facilitating list by the Russell Group. Is it really the case that they believe Classics are more important than economics in the modern world?”

Mr Blunkett also warned that if universities are to be handed a role in designing some A levels, vice-chancellors need to “stand up and be counted” and identify those people who have sufficient knowledge of how students learn to ensure the right decisions are made.

His address referenced a flagship speech he made at the University of Greenwich in February 2000, in which he said universities faced their biggest challenge in 35 years in the form of institutional diversity, vocational foundation degrees, e-universities and differentiated tuition fees.

“Whilst substantial progress has been made in the expansion of university places here and globally - and the challenges of the global economy and learning society have been understood and taken on - much of what was seen as relevant at the turn of the millennium remains central to the future success of learners today,” he said.

“If a ‘knowledge economy’ and ‘learning society’ are going to be vital in years to come, there will have to be – as I pointed out back in February 2000 – a mixed offer of full-time and part-time courses, of employment based and online platforms, and a sharing and development of investment and expansion through partnership between public and private, traditional and more innovative, interactive experiences.”

Mr Blunkett set out eight key recommendations for universities, including a greater emphasis on quality of teaching; increased focus on the needs of the future; greater appreciation of the needs of students; emphasis on connection with both the community and the world of work; and increased cooperation between universities in sharing expertise, teaching and learning opportunities.

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