Top-up fees and foundation degrees will turn higher into further education, says Patrick Ainley
The stated aim of the higher education bill is to widen participation so that 50 per cent of 18 to 30- year-olds have some experience of higher education by 2010. Raising fees appears to contradict this aim, given the debt aversion of those who can least afford fees and who are already struggling to complete degree courses at local universities and colleges.
However, another government target aims for 28 per cent of 16 to 24-year-olds to be on modern apprenticeships by 2006. Although there is little chance that this target will be reached, it at least offers an alternative to cramming for university entrance in sixth-form A-level factories.
There is, moreover, a financial incentive for taking this route because, in place of debt incurred through student fees and loans, trainees are promised paid employment or grants from their "provider of learning and skills", as further education colleges and private training agents are now officially called.
And the culmination of this "work-based route" will be the foundation "degree". But the degree title redesignates these students as belonging to higher education.
At the same time, it will turn large parts of higher education into further education by converting academic degrees to vocational competence-based degrees. This will be higher education in name only. It will mean, though, that both the 50 per cent and the 28 per cent targets can be met.
But where does it leave the traditional role of further education: offering a second chance to those failed by school and supporting the economy by equipping people with the skills necessary for a working life?
This role could be taken over by the training universities, as those below the new binary line will become. Administered by a regionalised Learning and Skills Council merged with the Higher Education Funding Council for England, their competency courses will be dictated by employer-controlled sector skills councils.
The reaction of most academics in the research elite is to distance themselves from this regional and vocational agenda and hike up their fees.
They don't care that the differential fees the government demands will promote a market in privatised higher education controlled by global corporations and open only to the wealthy plus a few token "bursaries".
Much of their research funding already comes from the Department of Trade and Industry, with its agenda of facilitating globalisation in support of these corporations. For them, the lowly activity of education is something others do.
Meanwhile, those who realise that not everyone can join the research elite may fancy surviving as teaching universities. But the market is not big enough to sustain them and, I suspect, most will become training universities.
This trahison des clercs puts paid to any residual notion of academic community. And defending the public service ethos of free education and salvaging the best of the polytechnic tradition of combining theory with practice will be left to those who have always been closer to the democratically controlled public sector than to the much-prized but largely illusory "independent" elite universities and private schools.
To save "free" education, those in the public sector should join with the mass of students opposed to fees. They are increasingly aware that they are learning less of any real worth at all levels of education. This includes school level, where the process of qualification inflation has produced the most narrowly over-examined and tested generation in history while simultaneously relegating many to a basic skills curriculum.
Patrick Ainley is professor of education and training at the University of Greenwich.
The University of Greenwich and Lewisham College have been holding a series of "Doorstep Dialogues" on the future of further and higher education.