Tuesday, March 03, 2015

From the wasteland

As tumbleweed blows through the ruins of adult education, with even the vestiges that still cling to life being eroded by harsh financial winds, it still has its advocates. Peter Scott is one, but his piece on university funding reads like a lament.
The winners have been young, full-time (and more privileged) students who want, or are able, to attend large-campus universities in big cities. The losers have been older, less privileged and, especially, part-time students who want, or need, to study locally.

The figures tell it all. The number of full-time students has increased despite the trebling of fees – maybe because no one has to pay them; they just have to pay higher taxes later. But part-time numbers have collapsed.
The situation bears all the hallmarks of a government that didn't consider the social purposes of education as they created an artificial market that was almost guaranteed to produce a cartel rather than thriving competition. Modern higher education is like wandering through one of those vast Tesco hypermarkets. The shelves are packed, but the produce is much the same and most looks unappetising. Now compare that to my two favourite food markets, Bury in Lancashire and Argalasti in Pelion. They may be smaller, but the variety is amazing. Local, traditional and seasonal products crowd small stands as the sellers shout at you as you wander round. The quality is great and the prices low. I always buy too much. Adult education was the one thing that gave universities and colleges something distinctive, innovative, local and cheap. But now, its gone. As Scott says,
Most colleges that took over adult education institutes struggle to fit them into their corporate strategies, except perhaps as short course units. Universities with once famous extramural departments take the same line.
It is very tempting to say, "we told you so", because we did. We warned over and over again that this is precisely what would happen if we didn't have discrete adult education provision. The university may be a supermarket, but it needed its market hall tacked on to it as well. Try and add its produce as product lines on the aisles and they would be swamped.

It is a classic failure. The government attempted to manufacture a market, but ignored the major determinant of demand - status. They worked on the idea that universities would compete for students on price and quality, not status. The government introduced variable fees and then found that they were applied as if they were invariable - at the top rate. This was completely rational. Demand exceeded supply and institutions wanted to maximise their earnings. But there was something else. Students were encouraged to view higher education as a way of buying a competitive advantage in the jobs market. In the era of mass education, that advantage comes through status as much as achievement. Universities reasoned that lower fees would indicate a lower status that would put them at a competitive disadvantage. The result was that there was no competition on price, individual institutions charged the same price throughout the sector and hoovering up as many high fee students as possible. All the Aldis pretended to be Waitroses.

Part-time and adult education, which was supposed to have been supported through variable fees, disappeared as everyone focused on maximising income. Part-time and adult students had to pay fees and when they rose to be pro-rata with full-time courses, demand collapsed. But this didn't matter to institutions because of their ability to pull in subsidised full-fee students from elsewhere. Social purpose played no role in their calculations, neither did the idea of long-term investment in their local communities to ensure a continuing supply of customers. Scott nails it:
The result is a mass system that is also monolithic, although riven by snobbish hierarchies. The so-called market is making it more monolithic.

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