Thursday 24 February 2022

Following England on education would be a mistake


The changes to university policy in England which are, apparently, due to be announced today are little short of an open attack on the idea that a university education should be equally available to all. Extending the period for repayment of student loans from 30 years to 40 will leave students in debt from the time they graduate almost to the point at which they retire, and it is an absolute nonsense to pretend that that won’t have a disproportionate effect on the less well-off. And given the long-known link between family income and educational attainment, the proposal to increase the minimum level of educational attainment to gain entry to university in the first place will also exclude poorer rather than richer people. Coupled with proposals to cap the number of places in English universities, the overall thrust is to return university education to what it was decades ago when I was young – the preserve of the middle and upper classes.

Of course, some would argue that there’s nothing wrong with setting a minimal level of educational attainment for university entry, and adding a minimum requirement for a GCSE in English (in England) and Maths sounds almost reasonable. It is, though, asking the wrong question and blaming the wrong people, and it’s based on ideology more than anything else. If English students are getting into university without a basic command of English and Maths, the question we should be asking is not ‘why are those individuals failing to achieve?’ so much as ‘what is wrong with an educational system which sees pupils leaving school without such basic skills?’ It is ideology which blames the individuals and seeks to exclude them, as though the failure is entirely down to them, rather than looking at how an educational system is failing individuals so badly.

I hope, and believe, that there is a more enlightened view in Cardiff, and that Wales will not follow suit. It will be difficult, though, for a devolved administration whose funding is set in London by comparison with England, to continue with current policies if their funding is reduced. There is also a danger that English students – excluded from England’s universities by the new regime – will seek to fill a greater proportion of the places available in Welsh universities. Reluctant as I would be to start imposing restrictions on the right of students to study where they wish, the Welsh Government needs to be ready to protect the interests of Welsh students if that appears likely to happen. England turning a university education into the privilege of an elite should not lead to Wales doing the same. It’s yet another example of the need for independence to set our own direction.


dafis said...

I take an alternative contrary view on this matter. Lower levels of numeracy and literacy are detrimental to society. Society has tolerated a slackening of standards and that is as much down to UK Government as anybody else. It created a kind of institutional tolerance of dumbing down, as much a feature of the so called upper classes as well as the already disadvantaged lower classes. Although, I struggle with making this matter class centred in the first place. More perhaps to do with society's general urge to instant gratification and easy options rather than the hard graft of tackling what are to many difficult subjects.

Having said all that I disagree with UK Gov's approach because once again it is only half a solution. What's missing ? Well the channels for remedy. Kids leave school with a few GCSE's but no English or Maths. So why not provide financially supported programmes aimed at recovery. That would enable a fairly rapid return into the University entrance process, or better still armed with good grades in Maths & English to top up their other grades maybe a shift across into the Apprentice community which can lead to HNC > Degrees without all that burden of debt which is a serious defect in the present system. Our society definitely needs to wean off the fixation with "University trumping all else" and reinforcing the other channels for progression is key to achieving that.

Why bother will all this ? Well it might just reduce the numbers of young people who when attending selection processes after qualifying/graduating appear to be a lot less bright than what they may really be. In my time as a recruiter I was quite stunned by the number of young graduates who were missing very basic tools that were key to just getting through their working day. Creating a strong second chance for these basic blocks would help a great deal.

Anonymous said...

'It will be difficult, though, for a devolved administration whose funding is set in London by comparison with England, to continue with current policies if their funding is reduced.'

Why so? We have more than adequate tax raising powers here in Wales!

Maybe you, like so many others, just don't really think education is important enough to be well funded. Or perhaps the thought of being directly responsible for more taxation would not sit well with the electorate.

Same old, same old ...


John Dixon said...


Did you by any chance go to Eton? Only you seem to have the same sort of relationship with fact as a rather more famous alumnus of that institution.

"We have more than adequate tax raising powers here in Wales!" Actually, Wales has very limited tax-raising powers, and the UK government has refused to extend those powers. In any event, the UK only pays part of its bills out of taxation; a great deal is paid for either by borrowing or else by the creation of new money; Wales' borrowing powers are even more limited that its taxation powers, and it has no power at all to create new money.

Anonymous said...

Comprehensive through and through ... but I wish I had had the chance to go to Eton. And Oxford or Cambridge. I don't think there is anything wrong with aspiration. And I do believe that the education in a school with a class size of under twelve is better than that received in a school with class sizes of thirty two or more.

Of course life is all about what you make of it, educated or otherwise. Or so they say. Maybe this is why a good education always seems to be so frowned upon.


John Dixon said...

I'm sure that most of us would agree that small classes are better than large ones: keeping them large is a political choice made by successive governments unwilling to invest the resources in making them smaller. That leaves education in small groups as a privilege open only to those with the money to pay for it. There is a danger, though, that you confuse an 'expensive' education with a 'good' education. The empirical evidence surely suggests that whilst paying for an expensive education creates the networks and the opportunities which allow some to breeze through life, it also leaves many of them emotionally stunted, devoid of any sense of humanity or empathy, and with an outsize sense of entitlement. And from what I observe, not particularly knowledgeable either.

dafis said...

..."And from what I observe, not particularly knowledgeable either." You reinforce my point about general dumbing down of society. Indeed I find it mildly amusing for a toff to spend loads of money on a private education and find at age 18 or upwards that the brat remains a thicko.

You are correct that the opportunity for networking enables junior thicko to mitigate the worst ravages of his condition for a while but his privileged peers are seldom slow to dump one of their number who has fallen behind by any yardstick. Nasty bastards all round.