It has come to my attention that I’ve not posted anything in the Politics / Current affairs category in my blog, so I thought I would rectify that omission by having my great education rant.
Education is perhaps one of the most important aspects to creating a successful and balanced society. It fuels the employment market by giving young people the basic knowledge which will be needed for their chosen professions. A quality education should allow an employer to determine whether or not a candidate is suitable for a position. Without good state education, employers would end up having to spend time training potential employees in the basics before candidates could be expected to carry out any role with any sort of effectiveness.
Sadly, the UK education system is in such a dreadful state that it is barely able to fulfil its requirements in giving young people the knowledge necessary for them to effectively compete in the employment market. A large part of the problem (but by no means the whole problem) is a result of the previous Labour Government’s higher education policies, led by Tony Blair. Under David Blunkett, the higher education system saw huge investment, but also saw a huge rise in the number of pupils entering higher education to study at degree level. This is the key problem for me.
Universities have a specific role to play in the education system. They rely upon high quality entrants who are able to cope with the higher academic rigours of a degree compared to those of GCSEs or A-levels. They are, by their very nature, elite institutions. I would like to make the distinction between elite and elitist at this point, as it is an important one. When I use the word elite in the context of this post, I am describing students of the highest quality of academic ability, regardless of any other quality they may possess (social background, wealth, race, nationality). I use elitist, by contrast, to refer to the idea that certain individuals (rightly or wrongly) deserve favoured treatment as a result of their social standing, class or wealth. In this sense, universities should be elite and not elitist.
And here stands my problem. David Blunkett opened up the higher education system. Tony Blair stated that he wanted 50% of school leavers to go to university. This, I believe, is at least in part a result of confusing the elite nature of university with a perceived elitist nature. Certainly there is a great perception that some Oxford or Cambridge colleges, as well as some of the top-performing universities are elitist, but I don’t want to get side-tracked on individual cases and prefer to keep a broader picture in mind. Maybe by opening up universities to 50% of school leavers, they thought they would be giving people from more disadvantaged backgrounds a better start, enabling them to become more socially mobile and “levelling the playing field”, to use one of those semi-meaningless nu-speak phrases so favoured by New Labour. This attitude is not just patronising to those of disadvantaged backgrounds but has caused enormous damage to the higher education system.
Did anyone in the New Labour machine ever look at the idea of universities being elite education institutions? I suppose not, although it is one of the most obvious qualities of the university system. Had they done so, they would have realised that the idea of sending such a high proportion of school leavers to university would mean that they would cease to be elite. Maybe New Labour thought that UK school leavers were of such a high educational standard that they deserved an elite education. With the huge arrogance displayed by New Labour (and Tony Blair in particular), it’s impossible to discount this assertion. Either way, I’m getting away from the topic.
The decision to “open up” universities to such a flood of entrants has meant that standards have inevitably dropped. Universities are no longer the institutions of elite education that they were, as they are obliged to fill places to hit admission targets. They have, to a certain extent, become certificate factories. Of course I hesitate to tar all universities with the same brush, and I daresay that there are some which haven’t been afflicted with this tragedy. In the large case of universities though, I would find it difficult to deny.
This is something which is now being picked up by employers. As the usual round of GCSE and A-level results come out year after year with record numbers of As and A*s, captains of industry are beginning to break rank with received knowledge and declare that they are finding it more and more difficult to distinguish good graduates from bad ones. The attainment of a degree is no longer the valuable marker of a quality education, devalued and diluted by the increased number of graduates from the great cathedrals of certification.
One of the great tragedies in all of this is the silence from the educators themselves. No-one is willing to criticise the education policy as being pure folly, obviously as it’s not in their interest. Lecturers would be out of a job if they spoke out in the media. Neither is it in the interest of politicians to shed light on the fact that the UK higher education system is in the gutter. So it remains the job of those brave Captains of Industry to publicly complain about the state of things if anything is to change. Lets just hope there’s someone in the government who’s listening.