Take from rich, give to the poor

June 2, 2006

A minister's indecent proposal for two-year degrees should be turned on its head, says Bob Brecher

Perhaps in line with the academic year's early finish this time round, the silly season seems to be with us already.

Despite being overshadowed by the pay dispute, the Minister for Higher Education's call for two-year degrees for the poor ("Two-year degrees may hold key to wider participation, says Rammell", April 14) is an outstanding contribution, even by new Labour standards. The idea is that while - naturally - it "doesn't mean lowering standards... two-year degree courses could offer opportunities for students who can't afford to take three years to study".

It's hard to know which is more stunning: the underlying conception of education as a commodity consisting of accumulated information, or the admission that it is good enough as "a way of luring more students from poor backgrounds to university".

Lewis Carroll couldn't have done better. Given the class structure of education in this country, you might have thought that, on the whole and with any number of individual exceptions, people from poor backgrounds would be less likely than those from rich ones to have had a decent primary and secondary education and would be less likely to have any tradition of university education. And so you might have thought that they would, on the whole, need more teaching and time to develop academic abilities than their rich counterparts. But no. It won't do to educate people from poor backgrounds: they need to be trained to know their proper place - as market fodder for a neoliberal future.

So here is a counter-proposal. Poor students need to have jobs to help see them through university; rich ones don't. Study after study has shown that there is a correlation between not having to do paid work and the quality of degree results. Students who need to work also need longer to complete their degrees to the best of their ability.

Furthermore, since students who don't need to work are richer than those who do, they are likely to have enjoyed considerable educational advantage before going to university. Two-year degrees should therefore be offered on a trial basis only to those students who pass an inverse means test. Since they do not need to do paid work, they can spend more time studying; on top of which they are also likely to need less teaching, as their earlier advantages mean that they will develop their talents more rapidly than their poor counterparts.

Of course, tuition fees for these two-year degrees will have to be considerably higher than those for standard degrees, to pay for the part-timers who'll need to be shipped in for round-the-year teaching. So, following the logic of arguments for higher tuition fees as a means of raising money for bursaries, why not add some more, and impose a hefty surcharge for the privilege of taking a degree in only two years? The extra money would be a useful subsidy for poor students' fees.

Questions of tactics and priorities aside, we have to make a stand against the Government's continuing assault on university education. Because, make no mistake: unless we do, Rammell's "vision" for the undeserving poor will become a reality.

Susan Bassnett rightly upbraids academics "for often being spineless and not standing up to be counted when successive governments have rubbished higher education" ("Spineless except over salaries", April 7). Here's an open invitation: let us start by squashing this Alice in Wonderland proposal.

Bob Brecher is reader in moral philosophy at Brighton University.

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