A new deal for education
This autumn marks the 50th anniversary of a seminal inquiry into the future of education. The Robbins review’s famous conclusion, that ‘university places should be available to all who are qualified for them by ability and attainment’, heralded a huge expansion: just five per cent went to higher education then, but now it is nearer 50 per cent. This process has opened up opportunities to so many who would previously have been excluded, and where people have been able to take this up they have been transformational. This is the power of education to change people’s lives, and has to be a key building block for a fair and prosperous society: An education system built increasingly for the many, not just the few.
It has been quite widely noted that I am the first NUS president to have come from a further education background. Perhaps particularly given this perspective I am certainly heartened at the growing emphasis rightly being given to vocational education. But we need to think bigger than that. We need to look broadly across all forms of tertiary education, recognising that different levels and modes of study will be appropriate to different people at different stages of their lives. A dynamic system of high quality lifelong education, funded in compact through the state, business and the individual based on the principles of entitlement and reciprocal contributions.
While expansion of higher education has been incredible, we know that opportunities are far from being meaningfully available to all. And in circumstances where higher education is still disproportionately the preserve of the better-off, the case to say it should be subsidised entirely by taxpayers is weak, particularly when the benefits reaped are both public and private, as Jacqui Smith recently argued.
Ed Miliband was elected as leader promising a move away from tuition fees: that was the right thing to say and it remains the right thing to do. But today’s students are just as interested in what will help them thrive, what will bring fairness and prosperity, as they are in a historical appraisal of earlier arguments about the rights and wrongs of the introduction of tuition fees.
We must look more widely than just tuition fees: the language of fees and debt remains toxic, especially to those who would benefit the greatest from participating in higher education, and they too often gives a false impression of how it is funded. Rather than driving quality, the pseudo-market currently imposed on the sector is stifling innovation. In distributing a lower unit resource to the new universities who are often best at recruiting students from poorer backgrounds, it can indeed seem like the system operates as an ‘inverse pupil premium’.
We need to clearly reaffirm the compact in contributions between the individual graduate and the state – in language and in principle as much as in funding levels. We need a system which speaks about genuine partnership throughout the education system in the UK, as well as a fundamental reaffirmation of the Robbins principle, of entitlement to education at any level, based on ability, without fear of future debt.
But as much as we need a new funding model, we need a broad and radical vision for what has variously been called tertiary or post-16 education. The barriers between further and higher education, and academic and vocational education, remain far too stark – and this is both an issue of social justice, and for the quality and relevance of the UK’s future skills base. Qualifications should cohere far better so that people can progress and develop as is appropriate to them at different stages in their lives. We should open up applications portals so that people can be truly aware of the opportunities available to them, as well as vastly developing information, advice and guidance – NUS’ soon-to-be-published research will show that university applicants tend to have very low levels of awareness of the apprenticeship opportunities available to them. And we should look at developing a coherent system of student support that reflects what you need and when you need it rather than your mode or level of study. For the future of our education, we need a new deal for the next generation.
Toni Pearce is presidents of the National Union of Students. She tweets @toni_pearce
Ed Miliband, education, further education, higher education, Jacqui Smith, Labour Students 2013, NUS, students, tuition fees