Taking students to market

August 11, 2000

Access for all is not about providing training schemes on the cheap, argues Lee Sergent.

Over the past 20 years, the principle of free education has been under attack. One of the main worries about these attacks has been their effect on access, with fees and loans and the abolition of the grant potentially pricing millions out of higher education.

However, the fight for free education is not just about achieving access to education for all. It is about achieving access to an education system that serves the interests of all, that provides choice to do the course students want and ensures they are taught in ways that enable them to get the most out of their studies.

In contrast, the government seems to be building an education system that serves the interests of business. For this government there is no role for education in enabling human beings to think about the world they live in and to become rounded individuals. Education is simply about providing people with enough practical skills to be useful commodities in the labour market.

If top-up fees were introduced - and they have moved higher up the agenda following the recent report by the Russell Group of research universities - only a minority of the richest students and a few who are lucky enough to win scholarships would have access to high-quality education.

The majority would be condemned to a second-class education, or, more accurately, training schemes on the cheap. The form this second tier would take - foundation degrees and two-year vocational degrees - is already emanating from the Blairite machine.

The government may pretend these moves are about choice, but really they are about saying that if you are not rich and you have not got straight As you have no right to use the system to explore your ideas and study subjects in depth.

I am not against the education system enabling people to train for jobs; professions such as nursing and teaching require high-quality training. But education should be about much more. We fight for a decent National Health Service not just to be healthy enough to work, but so that we can live as healthy lives as possible. We should fight for education, not just because we need skills to work, but because we want to fulfil our potential.

Who can deliver such an education system? This government knows who can best deliver a two-tier system: a system designed to serve the dog-eat-dog world of business is best delivered by privately owned "education action zone" schools, by the New Deal, which forces students off the courses they want to do, on to ones that will guarantee skills for the labour market; by unelected, unaccountable quangos of business men and women; and private universities that charge the market price.

But for students, an education system based around the needs of those who study and work in education is best run democratically by those who study and work in education.

Boards of governors in further education and councils in higher education that help decide the direction of institutions and distribution of resources are fundamentally made up of local dignatories, and business men and women. These bodies must be put back into the hands of teachers, students and locally elected representatives.

Just as free education is a right and not a privilege, students, teachers and local citizens have the right to shape education to ensure everyone has the opportunity to develop their creativity and their ability to take part in understanding and shaping the world around them.

Lee Sergent is co-chair of the Campaign for Free Education, which begins its Reclaim our Education conference today at the University of East London.

* Is higher education doing more for business than for students? Email us on soapbox@thes.co.uk

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