Posted tagged ‘Liberal Democrats’

Higher education policy in the UK

May 21, 2010

The new coalition in Britain has now published its programme for government, Freedom, Fairness, Responsibility. One of its 31 chapters concerns ‘Universities and Further Education’, and it contains some old and new proposals for England (Scotland and Wales have their own systems not run from London). Here’s a statement that caught my eye:

‘We will publish more information about the costs, graduate earnings and student satisfaction of different university courses.’

It is difficult to know what exactly is intended here, but publishing data of this kind has for some time been part of the Conservatives’ political frame of reference. The better availability of impartially gathered data about university performance is supposed to allow students and their families to make informed choices as to the institution chosen for him or her. How this will link to the established newspaper league tables for universities remains to be seen.

The programme also goes on to say:

‘We will ensure that public funding mechanisms for university research safeguard its academic integrity.’

Clearly the value of any research strategy is undermined by any doubts that may exist in people’s minds about the integrity of the institution and its staff. Ultimately however this is a matter for each university, and I cannot immediately see what the Cameron/Clegg partnership can aim to do here.

The funding issue is another matter. The coalition document undertakes to ‘ensure a properly funded university sector’. With reference to Lord Browne’s ‘independent review of higher education funding and student finance’, the programme for government gives the Liberal Democrats an opt-out from any decision to increase income from student fees for the universities.

In my view there are some good aspects to this programme, but there are also some warnings. England, like Ireland, is at risk of developing a highly bureacratised system for monitoring and controlling universities. This kind of outlook sees education as a process, and it will usually lead to greater administrative burdens without particularly prompting substantive education reforms.

English universities are now overseen by two politicians (Vince Cable and David Willetts) who are both highly intelligent and curious; but they must not be tempted to adopt the prevailing control-driven culture. For our English colleagues, there is much to play for.

The UK Liberal Democrats and higher education

April 17, 2010

Well, now that the pundits are saying that British Liberal Democrat leader, Nick Clegg, was the outright winner in the television debate between the three party leaders, it may be time to have a look at what the Lib Dems are proposing for higher education in their manifesto. Here is the relevant extract, in full:

• Scrap unfair university tuition fees for all students taking their first degree, including those studying part-time, saving them over £10,000 each. We have a financially responsible plan to phase fees out over six years, so that the change is affordable even in these difficult economic times, and without cutting university income. We will immediately scrap fees for final year students.
• Reform current bursary schemes to create a National Bursary Scheme for students, so that each university gets a bursary budget suited to the needs of its students. These bursaries would be awarded both on the basis of studying strategic subjects (such as sciences and mathematics) and financial hardship.
• Replace wasteful quangos (the Skills Funding Agency and the Higher Education Funding Council for England) with a single Council for Adult Skills and Higher Education.
• Scrap the arbitrary target of 50 per cent of young people attending university, focussing effort instead on a balance of college education, vocational training and apprenticeships.
• Start discussions with universities and schools about the design of a trial scheme whereby the best students from the lowest achieving schools are guaranteed a place in Higher Education.

Note the promise to abolish tuition fees, alongside the commitment to do so ‘without cutting university income’. Whatever views anyone might have on the acceptability of fees, the idea that they can be scrapped without reducing funding for the higher education institutions is almost certainly unrealistic – as the Irish experience has shown. A similar commitment was given in Ireland in 1995 and was manifestly not kept. It is probably a promise that is simply unaffordable.

Note also the suggestion that higher education participation targets are not helpful, and that some who are now being admitted to universities might have better vocational training elsewhere. Others are suggesting something similar, but whether it is really possible (or desirable) to reverse the massification of higher education may be questioned.

Overall, the chances are that the Lib Dems will have a major influence on the formation of the next British government, and so their election literature and their campaign are worth watching.