‘Of our elaborate plans, the end’

No wonder so many school and college students joined NUS on their latest protests. Unlike most Vice Chancellors, these teenagers and their parents can see tripled fees and HE funding restricted to Science, Technology, Engineering and Medicine marks the end, not only of higher education as it has developed since the war but – more broadly – of the whole effort to reform society through education and so better the condition of successive generations.

If carried into legislation, the Coalition’s proposals will close a phase of progressive reform that began with the official introduction of comprehensive schools from 1965. These freed primary schools for child-centred education and prepared the way for expansion of further and higher education, including the polytechnic experiment. Unlike 11+ selection, which became a thing of the past in 80 per cent of English secondary schools and more in Scotland and Wales, reforming education at all levels no longer aimed to reinforce existing social hierarchies but sought to break down class divisions by opening equal opportunities to careers for all. The logic of comprehensive reform carried forward to inclusion of children with special needs, a common exam at 16 and a National Curriculum sold to teachers as an entitlement for all, as well as more recent widening participation in HE to nearly half of 18-30 year olds.

Now these efforts are to be abandoned as education returns to shoring up existing privilege. The Coalition’s reception of the Browne Review of student fees compliments their cut of 40% of HE funding. Their new hard cap of £9,000 a year on fees leaves unfunded arts and humanities only for those who can afford such frivolous pursuits at elite and surviving campus universities – mainly overseas students and others who are seriously rich. For the rest, a market dedicated – like surviving HE research – to the interests of the private sector will offer vocational courses only in the STEM subjects as the remaining universities and colleges collapse and merge into a range of local e-learning hubs offering part-time and distance provision.

Perhaps the only good to come from this will be to recognise how impossible it was to expect education to change society in the first place by solving its economic problems. Now, along with the rest of what remains of public sector welfare-state services, the Coalition intends to contract education out to the private sector. This will create their ‘private sector-led recovery’, of which ‘free schools’ and private universities are just the start. Gove’s ‘fair funding’ of schools lays the ground for vouchers as a way to get more parents paying for the legal compulsion to send their children to school as a ‘basic entitlement voucher’ can be topped up by those who can afford it in new fee-charging private crammers and existing independent schools.

Residual notions of the right to education in a good local school with progression to further and higher education are being snuffed out by competitive academic selection. As has been pointed out by all save Russell Group Vice Chancellors and others deluded enough to believe their universities can also eventually privatise themselves out of the system, differentiated fees will heighten the existing social hierarchy in which, as a general rule, the older the university, the younger, whiter, more male and posher its students.

However, it is these students – or some of them – who have had the confidence to lead the action against the cuts so far. By involving state school students robbed of their educational futures and FE students protesting against the loss of Educational Maintenance Allowances, these undergraduates have probably done more to widen participation and create a real enthusiasm for higher education than all previous institutional efforts.

While £27,000 for a ‘top university’ degree is a good deal for those who have been paying £30,000 per child per year at the likes of Marlborough College, the workings of the market in education will leave the elite and their feeder private and selective state schools severely exposed. The ‘brightest and best’ who win through this relentless competition are increasingly and transparently revealed as the richest and most privileged – no matter how many (or in all likelihood, how few) bursaries the Russell Group provide for poor scholars.

Michael Gove’s recent White Paper promised equal funding of post-16 provision whether in schools or FE, ‘levelling down’ to FE instead of up to schools. The dim and demented Gove’s prejudice towards traditional academic study, separated from horny-handed vocational learning (as he thinks of it), can only widen the gulf between school sixth-forms and FE, although we await Professor Wolf’s report on vocational qualifications for the details.

Meanwhile, Kenneth Baker returns with ‘technical colleges’, supposed to be sponsored by universities and FE to recreate 1944 technical schools which only ever covered 4% of all secondary schools because technical education was and is too expensive to provide without the employer-supported apprenticeships that fell apart in the 1970s. Since then employers have not required apprenticeships and the state through the Manpower Services Commission replaced them with Youth Training without jobs. Now colleges will compete with private training providers to deliver Apprenticeships without jobs.

So colleges may benefit from Gove’s apparent switching of widening participation from HE to FE, perhaps by offering more cut-price two-year Foundation ‘degrees’. FE has the majority of NUS’s membership – including one in ten of all HE students – and, as the latest demonstrations show, together with school pupils and teachers, F&HE students and lecturers are well aware that reduced funding and raised fees attack the whole so-called ‘Lost Generation’.

In fact, the strongest argument against raising fees and fully funding HE while restoring EMAs is what else are school and college leavers supposed to do?

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