Public education from ABC to Phd

Melissa Benn's picture
Kate Tunstall of the Defence of Public Higher Education writes for the LSN website:

"A number of groups and individuals from across the higher education sector have launched a Defence of Public Higher Education.

We are campaigning against the withdrawal of public funding from the direct support of higher education (through the block grant scheme) and its use, instead, to fund a system of loans to support a fee-based system. This new system will create unprecedented levels of debt for students, but also for future tax payers because of the uncertainties of the repayment system.

Equally important is the way that this is being done to encourage for-profit providers – essentially, large multi-national corporations, like Pearson or Apollo Group – to enter the ‘market’. In effect, these new providers will be oriented to shareholder value and not to the public benefits that universities currently provide, to students, to the wider public and to the communities in which universities are based. The new student loan system represents a public subsidy for these new providers to make a profit.

In effect, our current system of public higher education, which has a world-wide reputation for its quality and provides excellent value for money, is to be subjected to a dangerous and destabilising political ‘fix’ despite there being no evidence that it is broken.

The new system will also have differential fees – currently between £6000 - £9000 (although, it should be anticipated that the £9000 fee cap will be lifted in the future, as recommended by the Browne Report) – where the same course will be charged at different rates according to the ‘status’ of the university offering it and its ability to get away with a higher fee.

The expectation is that students from poorer backgrounds will be more likely to be put off from applying to university because of the high cost, and even more likely to avoid the higher debt they face at more elite universities (at the same time, they are more likely to want to save costs by studying closer to home, where the local university may be one of those receiving fewer resources because of charging lower fees).

The Government wants to ensure that students with better A-level scores (AAB+) go to the elite universities. But, as research shows, while better resourced privately educated school pupils do better at A-levels than their stated-educated counterparts, they do worse when they get to university. As the Sutton Trust comments: “Comprehensive school pupils also performed better than their similarly qualified independent and grammar school counterparts in degrees from the most academically selective universities and across all degree classes, awarded to graduates in 2009.”

This will create a new system of socially elite universities that parallels the structure of secondary education, divided between state-funded and private education with the paid-for advantages of the latter now continued into higher education.

A Report from the Office of Fair Access [] has shown that 23 English universities (among them Oxford, Cambridge, Durham, Exeter, UCL and Bristol) have failed to meet their targets.

It is time for it to be widely understood that public education works – whether in secondary schools or universities. Perhaps it is its very success that creates such a hostile response from a ‘top’ that would otherwise be ‘squeezed’ by that success and is using all its resources to fight for its own interests against the interest of a wider public?"
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Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 26/10/2011 - 16:38

The UK already spends less than the OECD average on tertiary education and this is set to become lower as direct funding is replaced by loans to individual students. In 2008 the UK spent 1.2% of GDP* on tertiary education against an OECD average of 1.5%. Finland spent 1.7%, Korea 2.6%, New Zealand 1.6%, Canada 2.5% and US 2.7%.

It is self-defeating to allow funding of tertiary education to fall when high-performing competitors spend a larger proportion of their GDP on universities. And it is a waste of talent if young people decide not to attend university because they do not wish to start their adult life saddled with debt.

*figures from Education at a Glance 2011, p229

Alan's picture
Wed, 26/10/2011 - 20:11

Narratives about students from less well-off families being more likely to be deterred from university should also include those students on baccalaureate pathways in secondary modern schools with no sixth forms – there are plenty of these in Lincolnshire. It’s difficult to understand how teachers can incentivise learning to raise floor targets or how parents can raise aspirations when there’s no substantive academic provision to aspire. The idea that young people can always go vocational with hope of hopping over to academia en route is as risible as it is degrading – in our locality FE is a bus journey too far. The teaching profession, parents and universities really need to stand their ground on this.

If the Government were serious about raising education standards, equality of opportunity should be available to all. Raising thresholds for earnings to at least £31K for university loan repayments and the universal provision of six forms would be a good start.

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 27/10/2011 - 08:33

Alan rightly draws attention to a problem which so often goes unrecognised - that of small secondary schools, particularly in selective areas. In an area like Lincolnshire, the grammar schools cream off the top 25% of pupils. The remaining 75% are expected to go to the county's secondary moderns. Those secondary moderns on the border of counties which have a comprehensive system will then be doubly creamed with parents choosing the neighbouring comprehensive school (this happens in Stamford, in the south of the county).

Small secondary schools do not attract sufficient funding to maintain a full range of options at Key Stage 4 and if they do have a sixth-form (highly unlikely) this, too, will have limited subjects. Critics might argue that if the schools were more popular they would attract more funding but this is to ignore the fact that in rural areas there is a finite number of pupils. These children are disadvantaged in small secondary schools. It would be equitable to have a funding mechanism which recognised that small schools need more than the per-pupil funding in order to offer their pupils a full range of subjects.

As Alan points out, sixth-form provision within schools in Lincolnshire is inadequate. Most secondary modern pupils have little choice but to enter further education colleges for A levels. This suits some pupils, but others who would prefer to continue studying in a school environment are unable to do so unless a local grammar school has places. There is, therefore, a case for a group of schools to choose one of their number to offer a sixth form and the county to fund transport.

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