Labour’s higher education

As the British general election campaign gets under way, it will be instructive to see what election promises or plans are published by the political parties regarding higher education. First out of the blocks is the Labour Party, with its manifesto A Future Fair for All (clearly drafted by someone with a fondness for alliteration). It contains a section on higher education entitled, well, ‘World Class Higher Education’.

The key messages: the party wants to expand further the number of those taking higher education programmes, and wants universities to reach out to disadvantaged schools and communities in order to widen access. Thrown into that particular objective is the intention of encouraging ‘highly able students from low-income backgrounds to attend Russell Group universities’. Why, you’d have to wonder, the specific reference to the Russell Group? Even if you subscribe to the view that the Russell Group’s member institutions are all most excellent, there are a good few other universities that can match and beat universities from the Group.

The other key statement in the manifesto is this:

‘In the coming years, priority in the expansion of student places will be given to Foundation Degrees and part-time study, and to science, technology, engineering and mathematics degrees, as well as applied study in key economic growth sectors.’

This reinforces the trend that can be observed globally of governments persuading and cajoling universities to develop their strategies to support current national economic priorities. I strongly believe in the need for most universities to focus on specific strategic objectives, but I would be less confident that these will work if they are in fact nominated by government.

Of course British trends often travel quite quickly in our direction, and so it will be interesting to observe what gets said on education during the current campaign. Tomorrow I’ll be looking at the Conservative manifesto; always assuming that it will say something about higher education.

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7 Comments on “Labour’s higher education”

  1. John Says:

    Re: “… the intention of encouraging ‘highly able students from low-income backgrounds to attend Russell Group universities’”

    I would have thought the most significant phrase here is ‘from low-income backgrounds’.

    The fact, if it is one, that a child born into a low-income family has less likelihood of academic success than a child of equal potential born into a high-income family is the real crime here.

    The unfairness proceeds and accumulates from birth and ‘reaching out’ at age eighteen or later (presumably in the form of easier entrance requirements and financial support, which would not be necessary if fairness had prevailed from the beginning) is too late, since the earlier years are so decisive in educational and many other aspects of personal development.

    Giving everyone a truly equal opportunity would require a social perestroika of real significance, and would result in the best people really getting to the top in their respective fields.

    Still, as I have said before on this blog, when important and fundamental changes are required, it is customary and more socially acceptable to concentrate on side issues.

    • Sally Says:

      John, Labour’s crack at the educational early years is probably the best we can hope for, short of your perestroika:

      The early years

      Good play-based early learning gets children off to a flying start, so that they begin school ready to learn and achieve. We have expanded high-quality early learning and childcare, which also supports parents to work when they have young children and improves family living standards.

      There are now over 3,500 Sure Start Children’s Centres and every three and four year old has access to free nursery education, which is rising to 15 hours a week. Children’s Centres will become the bedrock of a new national under-fives service: ‘one-stop shops’, open to all families, offering excellent affordable childcare, healthcare and parenting advice. The number of free early learning places for disadvantaged two year olds will be expanded, on the way to our long-term goal of universal free childcare for this age group.”

    • John, there is no doubt that widening access to higher education is vital/ Indeed, if you look through my blog (not that I’m suggesting that!) you’ll find I’ve written several posts on just that. But I have real doubts as to whether a specific government policy of widening access to ‘elite’ universities, and not to others, makes much sense, not least when the ‘elite’ status is entirely self-proclaimed. That was my point. It was only a comment in passing.

  2. Vincent Says:

    The point about mention of the Russell Group is they are perceived correctly or otherwise of being the natural home of the Grammar, private and restricted entry Hampstead schoolboy/girl, where the orientation of the syllabus at the school is towards the Classics.

    On your main point that the ideas will travel over here lickitysplit. It took the free education idea long enough to get here.
    And to give the devil his due, they do really believe -even the Con’s- of the transformative nature of a good education. But more important they all believe that the transformation is a good thing. Something I really wish I could say about this Island, where education is seen as loosing control and position. See the negative reactions of those women a few weeks ago about the places reserved for mature students.

  3. John Says:

    Yes Sally, but doesn’t that, in common with the whole Labour agenda, look more like an attempt to mitigate the effects of the unfairness of built-in economic and social inequalities than a serious attempt to remove them?

  4. Sally Says:

    John, sure, but if you look at that second paragraph, you can envision younger and younger children spending less and less time at home, and more and more time at Sure Start centres and the like, obtaining, it is to be hoped, better habits and opportunities than they might in a low-income family.

  5. John Says:

    Re tomorrow’s UK election: I’d vote Labour because it looks like they’d punish you less for the economic crisis you created.

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