18 July 2009

Education, education, education?

By Lee Marsden

This week has been one of the most exciting weeks in the University of East Anglia calendar as thousands of students attended the graduation ceremonies that mark a rite of passage into the world of work, or higher study, where the skills developed and honed over three years can be put to effective use. As I sat applauding the achievements of those students I was also struck by the realisation that those graduating this year may be leaving with record levels of debt and, due to the recession, some of the worst employment prospects for many years but going to university was still the right course of action for them and for those who will follow after them. The critical thinking and analytical skills developed during their time at university will stand them in good stead as they contribute to an economy and society that is dependent on a highly skilled and articulate workforce. In the United States President Obama recognises the importance of higher education pledging to invest one billion dollars in universities and research so that by 2020 the US will have the greatest proportion of graduates of any country in the world. All of which is very different from the approach of our own government.

In 1999 Tony Blair pledged to have fifty percent of school leavers in higher education, which would provide opportunities for the many rather than the few, widening participation and encouraging those who otherwise would not consider university to do so. Rather than university being the preserve of the middle classes it was to become accessible to all. However, such lofty rhetoric has not been matched with results. Today there is little talk of the fifty percent target, indeed the percentages of 18-30 year olds in higher education has only increased from 39.2 to 39.8 percent over the last ten years, an increase of just 0.6 per cent. Students from the poorest twenty five percent of the population still only make up 6.5 per cent of the student population. While the aspiration to go onto university has led to record numbers of applications, the government, despite all the rhetoric of investing in the future, are determined to cut back on the increase in student numbers. Originally committed to increasing the number of new places on offer to 15,000 they have decided to cap the number of new places universities can offer at 10,000. In practical terms this means that universities, including the University of East Anglia, will have fewer places to offer students in 2009/10 than last year.

The reason given for capping student numbers is because too many would be entitled to means tested grants. In other words, the very people the government purported to be encouraging to enter higher education as part of its widening participation agenda are set to lose out again. As many as fifty thousand potential students may be unable to access higher education this coming year. Competition for places will be particularly tough and, in a league table-obsessed culture, will be based on A level grades rather than academic potential. Statistically higher A level grades are achieved by those best able to afford them through private or selective schooling with working class students from comprehensive schools faring less well. No prizes for guessing which students will miss out when the scramble for places occurs in August. In the current economic climate the government must find the money to enable students, who after all pay back most of the cost of their education through fees, to progress into higher education rather than face the prospect of unemployment. This is good for the student, good for social inclusion and good for the country – anything less is a betrayal of those lofty ambitions of ten years ago.

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