Thursday, April 29th, 2010 11:36 pm
'The very corner-stone of an education intended to form great minds, must be the recognition of the principle, that the object is to call forth the greatest possible quantity of intellectual power, and to inspire the intensest love of truth:' – John Stuart Mill, Civilisation

As I've made clear in other posts, I grew up a Liberal supporter. I'm a Liberal Democrat member now, too, and I've always voted for them, but it's only a few years ago that I rejoined the party. What caused me to leave?

I fell out with the Liberal Democrats – or Social and Liberal Democrats as they were then – while I was at university, and the the issue I fell out with them over was funding of Higher Education. Both students and Liberal Democrats had unsuccessfully fought the abolition of the student grant, and there was then a substantial faction within the Student Liberal Democrats in favour of a Graduate Tax. The reasoning was that, while we didn't approve of loans, it was unreasonable to expect society itself to pay for Higher Education when it didn't get the benefit, so students themselves should pay. It was the mechanism of payment that was the issue; we weren't in favour of saddling all students with a loan up front, but instead wanted graduates to pay for their education by having their earnings taxed at a higher rate.

I remember well the meeting of the Cambridge Student Liberal Democrats where this was discussed (actually, one of my first). Several people made what seemed to me a very convincing case for a Graduate Tax, and we were just starting to congratulate ourselves on how clever we were when Chris Lowe (our SU deputy-president from the previous year) stood up and told us why we were all wrong. And he was totally right.

The issue is complex, and I'll never do it full justice here. But in essence, the point is that having a well-educated population benefits society as a whole. The view that says that only the graduate benefits from university education is a narrow one. Even in financial terms, an employer who pays a higher salary to a graduate is doing so because they believe that the organisation as a whole will benefit from that graduate's skills. The less quantifiable (but IMO very real) benefit to society is ignored completely by the higher earnings for graduates argument, and there are many low-paid jobs that still benefit greatly from being filled by a graduate.

By the way, I treat with extreme caution studies that may show that graduates tend to be greener, less racist and homophobic, happier and healthier; I'm not at all sure that it can be shown to be caused by the university education, rather than university just being more appealing to people with those traits anyway. University was certainly a time for me when I was thrown into contact with a far greater multitude of views and cultures than I had preciously encountered. It makes sense on a handwaving level that this would make me at least potentially more tolerant, and that someone with a liberal viewpoint would thrive in such an environment. But I don't think I can prove it. In any case, given what I write later about recognising that university is not for everyone, my priority would be to allow people who didn't go to university to have an equivalent experience.

The benefit to the individual is more questionable, certainly in financial terms – yes, they might be able to get into higher-paid jobs eventually, but they have spent three years off the earnings ladder as a student. At the time (around 1990), many of the highest-paid jobs didn't even go to university graduates; this is less true now with so many jobs spuriously requiring degree-level qualifications as a bare minimum, but that brings its own problems.

Education is one of the key enablers of social mobility if made accessible to all, and allowing the poorest members of our society free university education was highly progressive. We need to get closer to that model again if we are to address some of the greater inequalities in our society. I didn't storm out of the party in a huff over the Graduate Tax, but that discussion did mark the start of my realisation that I was unhappy with the middle ground we appeared to be occupying on this and other issues.

We've got better since (and in truth I'm not sure the views of the Cambridge students were reflected in the larger party at the time). I'm still more hard-line on this issue than my party, as I still support (means-tested) grants rather than loans. But overall our Higher Education policy is good, and addresses many of the things that are very wrong with the system. We are proposing to phase out tuition fees over six years; yes, this is a retreat from a policy of scrapping them immediately, but with the economy in that state it's in, that's not surprising. Phasing out tuition fees will be expensive.

We're also supporting a national bursary scheme, which will allow universities to award bursaries to assist students who otherwise wouldn't be able to study. We propose that these bursaries be awarded partly on the basis of financial hardship, which I'm fully behind. I don't, however, agree with our plans to award them partly on the basis of strategic subjects (such as sciences and mathematics) as this smacks too much of trying to engineer the 'right' sort of graduate. I am both opposed to that in principle, and because I suspect that in practice it simply won't work. That said, I won't throw the whole thing out on the basis solely of that objection.

We're also going to scrap the target of having 50% of young people in University, in favour of a more diverse range of options including vocational training and apprenticeships. The 50% target for young people in university sounds reasonable at first, but coupled with an attitude that a university degree is simply a necessary hurdle to getting a job, it turns universities into just one more stage in the production line creating identikit graduates for jobs that don't actually need their skills. This drags down the standard for everyone; it's demoralising to teach people who don't want to learn, but are only interested in the rubber stamp at the end. Students who are genuinely there to learn don't get the attention and support they should.

But it's no good simply dropping the 50% commitment and restricting university places without doing anything else. That will just make universities more elitist. Instead, we need to genuinely value the non-university options, and that means putting more resources into the those options so that they can compete on a more equal footing. The Liberal Democrats don't want someone to become an apprentice because they couldn't get into university and that was all that was left, but because an apprenticeship is actually the best option for them. And, incidentally, for society; having a workforce with a diverse set of skills is a good thing.

It's no good just tackling inequality at the university level, though. It's far too late by then. To quote from our manifesto, and from just about every speech Nick Clegg's made in the past two years: 'a typical child from a poor family will fall behind a richer classmate by the age of seven and never catch up. ' Money invested in addressing that inequality before the child gets to seven is money well spent. This is what the so-called 'Pupil Premium' is for; it's a £2.5 billion cash injection aimed at schools who take on the most disadvantaged pupils from the poorest sections of society. It will be given to schools rather than parents, and be available to schools and FE colleges right from ages 5 to 19.

The schools can choose to spend the money in a number of different ways. Reducing class size was the headline-grabber when we announced the policy, but that's not always going to be the best approach. Except where you're starting from a very large class size (larger than most UK primary schools now have) or targeting a very small one (smaller than even the Pupil Premium will allow most schools to achieve), there's conflicting evidence about whether it even works. It's one of those 'intuitively obvious' solutions that doesn't actually have much data behind it and what studies have been done are mostly US-based so may not even apply here. Although, looked at another way, it suggests that UK schools should at least be given the chance to experiment.

Other approaches would be to use the money to attract better teachers, or teachers with a specialist background teaching disadvantaged kids, or to provide extra classes for children who speak little or no English, or to provide one-to-one tuition. There is no one solution that works in all cases, and schools should be free to use the money to provide whatever solution they feel will work best for their pupils. This flexibility will be further increased by scaling back the Year 6 SATs and abolishing the Early Years Foundation Stage and National Curriculum, replacing them with a much smaller Minimum Curriculum Entitlement.
In general, we are trusting teachers to do their jobs well. And since we're doing that, we'll be putting resources into training them better; training will be available over the course of their careers to ensure that they're up to date with best practices. Training on bullying prevention will be a part of this, we seek to counter bullying, including homophobic bullying, in all schools.

But now I'm in danger of simply listing the policies from our manifesto verbatim, which is something I'm trying very hard not to do in this series. You can, after all, read it perfectly well for yourself if you like.

I opened with a quote from Mill. I note, wryly, that Mill was not a great fan of state education, calling it 'a mere contrivance for moulding people to be exactly like one another'. I think that our education policy goes to some lengths to counter that effect, providing a diverse range of educated citizens and going as far as possible to allow them to follow their varied chosen paths in life.


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