Over the last two decades, there has been an increasing assumption in Britain of a direct link between a country’s education system and its economic prosperity, which was summed up succinctly in Tony Blair’s famous statement “Education, education, education”. This idea led to a raft of frantic policy initiatives from both of the main political parties in Great Britain, often loftily inspired by economically worthy human capital theories. The 1988 Education Act and the 1997 Dearing National Committee of Inquiry into Higher Education are excellent examples of this, and there are more Acts and reports such as these looming on the horizon as I type. Yet despite the commitment on the part of various governments to link learning with the needs of the economy, the rate of return for the state in relation to investment in education dropped from 12.1% in 2004, to 11% in 2007, and appears to continue its downward slide. Looking at these figures, it’s obvious that exactly how higher education contributes to economic performance is far from clear, which explains why in recent years this has become an increasingly controversial issue (all the more so in a period of economic recession and increased constraints on the public purse). Looking internationally as well, that there is no simple correlation to be had anywhere between indices of educational investment, outcome at different levels, and economic growth. So despite the Browne Report, it’s not a straightforward situation for the UK Exchequor to decide which higher education sectors and courses to invest in, which goes some way to explaining the recent muddle and controversy surrounding higher education funding.
Given that we have no clue what the relationship between higher education and society really is, it’s probably time to admit this and have a closer look at the proposed system of funding again before we take the existing system apart. If this new funding regime is going to work, a much more detailed understanding of the impact of education on a student’s potential and future social and economic behaviour is needed, rather than superficial references to enhanced earnings on the part of individuals and so on, and vague claims like that based on historic earnings data (and beliefs) of grammar school boys going off to university when only 2% of the population had degrees. The truth these days is that your earnings are largely dependent on the course you study and the age of the university you attend, as well as what your parents did for a living, and it’s naive to pretent otherwise. This is why on certain well-established courses leading to prestigious socio-economic status , for example Medicine, Law, Engineering, and Architecture, you are likely to coin it, statistically speaking, anyway. However your brethren on other courses, such as Education, Psychology, Drama and so on are a lot less likely to bring home serious amounts of loot thanks to the income dice being thrown in favour of the graduates from the first batch of courses I mentioned.
To add insult to injury, some higher education courses with a more contemporary vocational leaning have been considered with suspicion by mainstream higher education academic communities, particularly in the case of those courses coming about as a consequence of government controlled expansion of the sector from below, alias Foundation Degrees. At subdegree level, Foundation Degrees are often considered as “stepping stones towards degree courses”. To make it worse, the supposed professional content or transferability of such courses tends to be questioned by employers themselves, and is not necessarily a selling point. This means that a lot of people just use them to get onto more conventional degree courses So they are not acting as stand-alone qualifications, and employers don’t seem to want to know. They’re not funding them either, which is something of a concern, as they were originally set up with the idea that employers would fall over themselves to bankroll them, which doesn’t seem to have happened.
It gets worse. Most Foundation Degrees seem to take place in former polytechnics, so this policy has had the unintended consequence of reinforcing stereotypes associating types of institutions/nature of courses/student identities with vocational courses. But despite these prejudices and preconceptions, data on undergraduate courses such as Education and Criminology show that the picture is far more complex, with students from all sorts of backgrounds evident in different universities taking these type of courses whilst aiming towards contrasting careers . This is why we really need to examine students’ motivation and individual trajectories in various contexts to sort out how structure and agency impacts on subject-related student identity formation and enrolment trends on such courses. This trend also entails change for universities, who may not be sufficiently well attuned to contemporary needs in terms of their organisational practices and structures (hence frequent problems accommodating mature students, for example), and the conception of the student that is embedded within them. Education may in some respects be timeless, but students exist in specific worlds at specific times, and provision must reflect this.
So we reach a position whereby we have shifted a large part of the burden of higher education onto the students themselves. If we’re going to have a functional system, it becomes imperative that we understand a university student’s conception of their education and learning; how they will make educational choices; what their expectations of higher education are; and which elements of it are suited to these views and their needs in a knowledge based economy. Until we do that, as I said at the beginning, we are shooting in the dark. My message to Government? Stop rushng, and start talking to students and their parents.
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