Thursday, January 18, 2007

Education, education, education

More on education now and three things have caught the eye this week.

The headline today is about predictions of sharp rises in University fees. As always the old argument is dragged out.

… the present loans system in effect provided "a huge subsidy to the well-off middle class" because students are benefiting from a generous low-interest loans while pursuing careers that offer salaries well above the national average.

Leaving aside the argument that giving subsidies to the middle class is actually rather effective politics and thus likely to continue, this is only true if working class students are excluded from the system. It is an argument for widening participation, not higher fees.

Arguably, the current loan and fee system is the most regressive of the funding options. The repayment amounts are the same regardless of the benefits, so that a student who qualifies, say, as a company lawyer and earns a fortune, pays back exactly the same as someone who uses their qualification to enter the caring professions, or even non-graduate employment, at a fraction of the earnings. The tiny minority of students who use higher education to get elite jobs are hugely subsidised – the average student debt is a tiny percentage of a City bonus. The majority feel student debt as a colossal burden and obstacle to be surmounted. It is incontestable that the prospect of debt does deter low income students. Of course, part-time students are left to largely pay their own fees up front too, but then they only make up 40% of the total number!

I would have thought that a system that brought benefits to the few at the expense of the many would be inimical to a Labour government. However, political cowardice means that the government has shied away from the two logically consistent models. The first is a fully commercialised system where the risks and costs are met by the student and the cost/benefit analysis about how much to be spent on their education is theirs and theirs alone. I would argue that such a system was likely to entrench, rather than erode elitism and restrict social mobility. The other is a form of universal support, means-tested if necessary, financed through a graduate tax, thereby ensuring that those who benefit the most pay the most and vice versa. The latter is surely the best policy for a social democrat, removing social barriers to education whilst ensuring that those who benefit do pay. What the attraction of the current complex mess is, I do not know.

The second is a one of the rarely reported positive stories from Iraq.

A college in Iraq is trying to steer men away from violence with an approach to further education based on the British model.

The Najaf Technical Institute has begun training programmes aimed at giving skills to unemployed former members of militias, which, it is hoped, will lead them out of trouble into employment.

This is the type of initiative in Iraq the UCU should be promoting, helping and supporting rather than demonstrations calling for the withdrawal of troops.

Finally, the Telegraph reports that another of John Betjeman's lovers has come to light. Margie Geddes met him when he was a teacher at her brother's school. What I liked was the description of his teaching method.

"He climbs through the classroom window, and lies on the floor to teach; he says this is to make sure he's got control."

Don't you think that through the tyrannies of OFSTED and lesson plans we might just have lost something?

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