Self-improvers deserve goodwill from ministers

December 21, 2007

Few Government plans in any area of policy can have met such a unanimous chorus of disapproval as the scheme to stop funding students taking a second degree at a level they have already attained (page 7). Those responsible are risking every form of reprisal, from the ire of the business community to eternal damnation for irritating the nation's theologians.

The point the Government has missed is that it does not matter whether somebody already has a degree at the same level as one he or she plans to take later. More important is whether it is the right qualification for the individual concerned at that point in his or her life.

The proposal to abolish funding for equivalent or lower qualifications shows that the Government is not reading the advice it has received from luminaries such as Lord Leitch, in his report on lifelong learning. As he has pointed out, employers and employees have fast-changing needs for a wide range of skills. Now is the time for Britain to abandon its long-held measles theory of education, which suggests that people should get their learning over at the earliest possible point in their lives. But while there are endless ministerial pronouncements about the merits of lifelong learning, it is hard to imagine a worse attack on it than withdrawing £100 million from ELQ education. Every country in the world says it wants a more flexible workforce, but this proposal says that the UK is not willing to spend money on getting one.

There are innumerable examples of ELQs that transform individuals' economic usefulness, send them on a new career trajectory or enhance their minds. The most obvious is the MBA. Many of the people who take it already have a masters degree or a PhD. But an MBA turns a specialist, perhaps an engineer or an accountant, into someone with the broad skills needed to run a business.

The MBA is such a money-spinner for universities that it is likely to survive the Government's ELQ plans, but the same will not apply elsewhere. Is the Government really saying that a middle manager with a masters degree in chemistry is getting some illicit subsidy if she wants to study for a qualification in finance?

Nor are vicars and middle managers the only potential victims of these planned cuts. In the National Health Service, many doctors and other heavily qualified professionals need to refresh the skills they have or get new ones. Patients and the NHS overall are likely to suffer if this sort of mid-career learning becomes more difficult.

The ELQ proposal is inherently an attack on opportunity. Many people taking additional qualifications make big sacrifices to do so. They tend to be older people with financial commitments, childcare needs and other complications that an 18-year-old leaving school does not. And even those in full-time work might not have the spare cash they would need to pay full fees for the course they plan to take.

The Government has announced a series of exceptions intended to dilute the full effects of this measure, for example excluding some subjects and recognising the special needs of the unemployed. But this approach still suggests that that Government thinks it knows more about individuals' needs than they do themselves. If people are willing to put in the effort to gain a fresh qualification, and if the university is willing to admit them, it cannot be right for the state to decide that they will have to pay more for their course than another home student sitting alongside them.

The proposal is a bad one, but a seasonal solution is at hand. A Christmas Eve announcement rescinding the proposed changes would undo the damage, and with no bad headlines for the Government.

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