On 9 November students march to protest against fees, cuts, the scrapping of Educational Maintenance Allowance for older school students, and the Government’s plans to further “marketise” universities.
Access and foundation courses — through which working-class students without the necessary A-levels can qualify quickly to get a chance to take a degree — will suffer specially under the Government’s new plans for universities, set out in its June White Paper.
Universities, keen to cut costs, will outsource such courses to private companies, like Apollo. Apollo runs “sub-prime” universities in the USA, like the University of Phoenix, where only 16% of students actually graduate, despite racking up huge debts.
The White Paper plans also mean that “contextual offers”, whereby a university offers to accept a student despite poor test scores because of their disadvantaged background, will disappear. Under the new rules, universities will lose out financially by accepting low-scoring students, irrespective of their background. Universities must follow the money.
Bursary schemes will be changed. Rather than being used as a means of providing access to education for poor but gifted students, they will be used as a means of attracting AAB-scoring students.
Already Queen Mary University in London and Kent University are offering “Excellence Scholarships” for high-scoring students. Increasingly we will see bursaries handed out to well-off students with good test scores.
Under the White Paper plans, a complicated system of quotas means that universities must focus ruthlessly on recruiting more “AAB” students (students who get AAB or better at A-level) to get Government funding, or choose to aim low and provide stripped-down, low-cost courses at lower fees.
Inevitably existing schemes to promote access for poor students to universities will suffer.
The basic aim is to drive the market into every part of the education system, to permeate universities with the logic of profit and business.
It is to turn education into an “investment”, an expensive gamble, made in the hope of future high pay.
Swindling cowboy firms like Apollo, INTO, and BPP will take over an increasing slice of the sector, while existing universities will be forced to function like businesses or go to the wall.
The White Paper will create a tiered education system, with full and rounded education for a few and stripped-down training for others.
Bursaries and access schemes are already woefully inadequate. For working-class students, they represent crumbs, morsels of charity held out to them by an education system heavily biased against them.
Education should be free, a right for all, paid for by society, through taxing the rich. All students should be financially independent. Society is wealthy enough to offer all students a living grant. But the Government’s scheme is a rolling-back of the advances made in the mid 20th century in access to education, and in acceptance that education should be a right for all rather than a privilege or an “investment” for a few.
In the 19th century, when the capitalist class first realised the necessity of creating a more universal education system, which would educate working-class young people as well as the sons of the wealthy, they were clear about the purpose of the new system.
Robert Lowe, the class-conscious Liberal politician who was responsible for the education reforms of the 1860s, said in 1862: “We do not profess to give [working-class] children an education that will raise them above their station and business in life; that is not our object, but to give them an education that may fit them for that business...”
Working-class people were to be given only the training that was necessary for them to understand written instructions and do simple sums, to function as manual workers in industry, or as soldiers for the Empire. Subjects thought to be ennobling and mind-expanding, like mathematics, the classics, and law, were reserved for the children of the ruling class.
Over decades, and especially after 1945, the labour movement won a huge expansion in access to education, and began to knock back much of the old elitist philosophy. From the late 1960s, comprehensive schooling gained ground against the old tiered system (grammar schools and secondary moderns).
There was a large influx of students into universities. It became more of an established idea that education is a means of enriching society and individuals’ lives, rather than for separating out a self-aware elite.
The Government’s goal is not to return universities to the 19th century model, where only a small minority from wealthy families get to universities, there to study deliberately abstruse disciplines which nonetheless were deemed to qualify them to rule the country. Economically, the Government knows that today’s capitalism needs mass-production of young people sufficiently educated to do many jobs requiring them to deal with much paperwork, and that fees paid by overseas students at British universities are an important part of the country’s “export income”.
In some ways it is worse. Social mobility (the ability of children from poor families to reach well-paid jobs) has already been declining alongside an expansion of university education. Now, almost all children of well-off families go to university, where before many didn’t; a large proportion of better-paid jobs are reserved for graduates, where before only medicine, the law, and the church were; and most children of poor families are shut out.
The Government’s plans would make Britain’s university system more like the USA’s, but without the USA’s big publicly-owned state universities which charge lower fees and admit a wider range of students.
In the Government’s scheme, Britain’s universities will polarise even more. At one end will be a minority of well-off institutions with large endowments, able to attract many high-paying students from overseas; at the other end a mass of US-style “diploma mills”; in the middle, a range of universities, many undecided about whether to bid to join the elite or to try to beat the market as lower-cost providers of courses which may not teach you much but at least enable you to say “I’ve got a degree”. Of the courses that are relatively widely available, more will be narrowly job-oriented.
US university education has traditionally been more democratic than Britain’s. But, as the USA has become more unequal in recent decades, researchers find that “the high concentration in the nation’s colleges and universities of youth from the top echelons of parental income and social class is disturbing and appears to be increasing...
“The system thus seems to intensify and reinforce differences in economic status. Though college attendance rates are rising, college graduation rates for US students are growing slowly, if at all...”
The 9 November demonstration should be the start of a broad movement across Britain’s universities, colleges, and schools, linking up with the trade union fightback.