Newspeak trips off all tongues

December 29, 1995

POLITICS. Westminster watchers in further and higher education could be forgiven for feeling in a spin after 1995. For there was something decidedly circular about the arguments advanced by politicians as they struggled in vain to produce some original policies for universities and colleges.

The same themes chimed out at every press conference, every launch, every speech; their arrival, on the cusp of a General Election, as reliable as Big Ben.

Standards. Student support. Accountability. A levels. Overarching awards. Vouchers. Graduate tax. Learning accounts. Lifelong learning. Gold standards. Golden handshakes. Accountability. A levels. Standards. Trevor MacDonald. Bong. Bong. Bong.

Yet according to the politicians, everything was brand new. New department. New education and training targets. New modern apprenticeships. New technology. New Labour.

This view would not bear too much close scrutiny. Labour kicked the year off on student support and ended up kicking itself for letting slip the familiar words "graduate tax". The nation's media thought it was Christmas again.

In February, Labour returned to the "new" idea it launched at its pre-election conference in 1991 - the University for Industry. This would be built on the opportunities offered by the information superhighway, it said. But the Government insisted it had thought of this first, as it launched its plans to put education on-line. Then the Open University - set up by Prime Minister Wilson 30 years ago - ruined it all by pointing out that it was already a University for Industry.

Higher education reviews were the rage of 1995, and every political party, as well as the Government, had to have one. Hints and leaks about the likely conclusions of these reviews revealed that they all seemed to be heading in the same direction - backwards. Learning accounts, vouchers, associate degrees and accountability emerged as the newest old ideas, whereas single overarching qualifications, reformed A levels, and a "fairer" system of student support all echoed from General Elections past.

By the time the party conference season rolled around, everyone was running out of new old ideas. The Liberal Democrats went for learning accounts, while Labour plumped for new technology, leaving the Tories with that old reliable theme, standards. When the Government unveiled its plans for a privatised student loans scheme in November, the banks had an uneasy feeling of deja vu. Then in December Labour trumpeted its latest theme. Standards.

As Harold Wilson once said: "A week is a long time in politics." We might add that a year is even longer - especially when it's a repeat of the year before.

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