Loosen up, ministers

August 2, 2002

Drop the 50% target, review all of post-16 education and trust people to learn, says Alistair Burt

Contrary to expectation, and science apart, the chancellor's comprehensive spending bonanza brought little for higher education but a sense of puzzled apprehension. The sector again heads wearily for the autumn, waiting for its paymaster to speak, as the consequences pile up from a year of delay and missed opportunities.

The review of student finance, for example, was launched with prime ministerial concern in October last year, with the expectation of announcements by Christmas. This slipped to a public commitment to report "early in the new year" and finally comments of "soon" were replaced by a new commitment to report in the autumn. The review has suffered from being secret and from leaks demonstrating that education ministers have not been in charge.

As arguments surrounding diversity of mission become sharper, applications to university are beginning to plateau. Students, with a personal stake in their future, are voting with their feet and starting to avoid places and courses that they do not rate highly. Uncertainty over finance is not helping them make a decision to apply in the first place.

The need to increase participation in higher education - the only thing the government has been going on about consistently - is now also under attack. The Institute of Directors is not alone in being greatly concerned about the crisis in intermediate skills in this country.

All these issues were live at the start of this Parliament a year ago. We expected them to be addressed in the run-up to the comprehensive spending review, but we now find that this was to be only a signal to get on with a review. What a waste of a year.

But let me put away the party sword for a while and make two suggestions designed to help ministers out of their mess.

First, extend the review of higher education to include further education. Unless we consider the skills needs of the country in their entirety, and match such an analysis with consideration of the resources and places needed to deliver them, we will continue, for all the talk of parity of esteem, to divide. We will continue the crude class differential between academic and vocational when it is damaging and the time for it to go is long overdue.

There has never been a better time, either, to take this on, with further education providing an increasing amount of higher education and being an ever more crucial part of the nation's ability to provide for its future.

Second, free yourselves from this target of 50 per cent of all 18 to 30-year-olds to have some experience of higher education by 2010 and replace it with a better aspiration. One hundred per cent of our children deserve the best education and deserve to reach for the highest attainment of which they are capable. None of us knows how many will ultimately benefit from higher education, so why set limits and why downgrade every other form of post-16 education, suggesting that only an aspiration for higher education should be encouraged? What does this do for parity of esteem?

The manifesto target brings with it several unhappy consequences. As it must be met, there is a temptation to fiddle with the definition until it is something the public stops recognising and thus disregards. This process is already under way. Next it will be imperative to ensure that, whether or not it is in the interests of the individual, a higher education place must be taken. Failing institutions can confidently expect to remain open to provide the necessary places. Can anyone see that adequate unit funding to do this job properly, providing 30,000 more places a year, will be available without cost to other parts of the university fabric?

So strengthen schools to ensure there is an able cohort of 16 to 18-year-olds from non-traditional backgrounds. Stop berating universities for their intakes, and start recognising their efforts to attract the best from all backgrounds. Allow both higher and further education to grow at a pace that recognises the needs of the individuals who come through the doors and those of the nation. And, for once in this government's life, trust them all to get on with it.

Alistair Burt is the former Conservative spokesman on education and skills.

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