Plan to raise school-leaving age is unlikely to have the effect of widening access, say Patrick Ainley and Martin Allen
Raising the school-leaving age to 18 could do more than any other measure to widen participation in higher education. But not in the heavy-handed and incriminating way that the Government proposes.
Staying at school or going to college is now the norm for most 16-year-olds. But widening participation beyond that is problematic for at least four reasons.
First, the Government's target of 50 per cent writes off "half our future", as the 1963 Newsom report put it when referring then to those previously neglected by selective secondary education. Leaving school at 18 would be a shared goal for more young people if it signalled assumption of full citizen rights from that age. In countries with a republican tradition, these include an entitlement and expectation of entry to your local university. In England, universities that select only genetically "first-class minds" while failing the rest negate any entitlement to higher education. This Platonic principle is nowadays imposed on every tier of education to create a new tertiary tripartism with sixth-form A-level factories at the top, technical centres of vocational excellence in the disappearing middle and non-advanced further education at the bottom.
This makes selective higher education - with its hierarchy of researching, teaching and training universities meshed with tripartite schooling and further education - the second reason that the repressive raising of the school-leaving age will not widen participation.
Introducing vocational diplomas supposedly linked to employment will be no more successful than current vocational qualifications have been. Most schools don't need them and, while some employers say they welcome them, in practice they continue to deskill and outsource their labour. Young people know that with few exceptions such "vocational options" are second best and unlikely to lead to secure jobs with prospects. They will therefore continue to sign up for traditional academic courses even though they know that glittering places at elite universities are available to only a few.
Third, widening participation is itself a cruel con. It is presented as professionalising the proletariat while disguising an actual proletarianisation of the professions in which wages and conditions deteriorate. Qualification inflation that outruns employment demand means that many school, college and university graduates lack opportunities to use their qualifications as they had hoped. Consequently, many students are running up a down escalator.
Students pay more for less in this worst of both worlds that combines a mass higher education for the many with an elite higher education for the few. In the latter, at best they teach themselves since academics are too busy researching. At worst, students' experience is increasingly virtual and chaotic. Only big corporations benefit from the glut of certified, if not qualified, graduates that they sift through selection centres.
Last, and most obviously, widening participation is contradicted by raising fees. This explicitly links cultural capital with the money capital needed to acquire it in the "better" private and state schools. Class and ethnic differences are consolidated and heightened. Snobbery and racism raddle the system from top to bottom.
If fees were uncapped, the full-on market would make this transparent. It would no longer be possible for vice-chancellors to play the game of nearly all charging the same and so remove the market, as few could follow Oxford University to the £18,000-plus it needs to cover its annual undergraduate teaching costs.
If fees rise to the exorbitant rates already charged to overseas students, the researching elite may privatise itself out of a system where few teaching universities offering a "quality campus experience" could follow them. Teaching universities will merge with training universities and their associated further education colleges delivering competence-based courses for local employment to locally living students. This will turn large parts of "higher education" into further education while franchising foundation "degrees" to further education redesignated as "higher education".
This process of market-managed consolidation has already begun closing "uncompetitive" departments, as institutions compete on undergraduate bursaries and other offers, while more expensive, longer and postgraduate courses cost more. The same thing has happened in further education to reduce the number of colleges since incorporation and it could also face schools under the 2006 Education and Inspections Act.
Those in the different sectors of education should learn from each other as they are increasingly in the same boat. So is education now more about social control than emancipating the minds of future generations?
Certainly, criminalising those who leave school before 18 as the Government proposes will only increase the divisions in our increasingly violent and self-destructive society.
Patrick Ainley is professor of training and education at Greenwich University. Martin Allen works in 14-19 education at Alperton Community School, west London. Their book, Education Make You Fick, Innit? What's Gone Wrong in England's Schools, Colleges and Universities and How to Start Putting it Right is published by Tufnell Press, £10.95.