Many conservatives argue that a College or University education should only be reserved for the few, the elite. Yet this this view was very much a product of a time when the economy was hungry for manual workers, not the highly educated. Today, educational philosophy has become more egalitarian, more fair and equal and it reflects the growing need for highly skilled and highly educated people to work in our knowledge based economy. Therefore, elitists are largely whistling in the wind as they call for a retrogressive step that makes no economic sense. However, elitist and egalitarian views are worth exploring in order to provide a deeper understanding of this debate.
Elitism takes the view that competitive entry, exceptional or at least high ability, is a prerequisite to qualify for a College education. The comparative few then, not only deserve to be there, but also have the best chance of successfully completing their programme of studies. Candidates of this calibre should be supported by the state through the payment of tuition fees and perhaps even a maintenance grant. A College education on these terms would be too expensive to provide for the majority and far too many would drop out or be asked to withdraw anyway.
Egalitarianism and the history behind it: Britain
The case for expansive College education is associated with the growth of our social rights and entitlements. It was T.H. Marshall (1949) in his Cambridge lectures who described the evolutionary nature of English Citizenship. He explained how civil rights were established in the 18th century, political rights in the 19th and social rights were finally established in the 20th century. Education was a significant element of what constituted social rights for liberal reformers like Marshall and without it, there could be no legitimate social stratification. If the majority are denied access to education, the poor remained so only because of their poverty and ignorance, not because of any intellectual deficit or lack of effort. So Marshall was saying that the right to meaningful, free education, was very much intertwined with what it is to be a citizen.
Furthermore, if one examines the skills deficit that exists in Britain, the elitist argument looks even less tenable.
The British Context
The White Paper, Further Education: Raising Skills, Improving Life Chances (2006) actually made grim reading in terms of our general level of education and our poor position in the international skills hierarchy. Firstly, the Paper asserts that “our staying on rates for post-16 education and training are scandalously low.” So not only are the aggregate numbers low for those with a College education, many are also not engaged in any meaningful training either. In fact, Britain is near the bottom of the ladder for staying on rates and ranks a dismal 24, out of the 29 developed nations. Our European competitors like France and Germany have a much higher proportion of their young people achieving a level 3 qualification (A level equivalent) by their early twenties. If one examines the educational profile of our adults, the picture is even bleaker. We have a high proportion of adults without a level 2 (Ordinary level or GCSE) qualification and this presents a real barrier to their life chances and long term employability. As the UK’s skills deficit is so manifest, surely this provides an economic justification for making a College education as easily accessible as possible.
We need to support, encourage and sometimes if necessary cajole learners into taking up the educational opportunities afforded to them. Like any successful professional organisation my own institution contributes towards that objective through marketing: open-days, interview evenings and through schools liaison.
Although educational providers are now “encouraged” to diversify their revenue streams by Government and levy some charges for certain courses, the cost to the tax-payer is still approximately 90 billion pounds per annum, with 10.2 billion of that earmarked for Colleges. Additionally, not only are students provided with publicly funded College education but students from families whose income falls below 30,800 pounds per year, are actually paid to go to College through EMA, the educational maintenance allowance. This helps to ensure that a College education is not something only within reach of the middle classes but is also a realistic option for those from more deprived circumstances.
Then one might reasonably ask the question, do all these students make best use of these opportunities? As one might guess, the answer is yes and no. Most of those who attend providers who are either Outstanding, or Good, do fulfill their obligations, work hard and succeed. But others inevitably waste their time, their lecturer’s time, tax-payer’s money and their parent’s patience. However, the main point is that their fecklessness should not be allowed to preclude others from enjoying the social rights that their forefathers fought so hard for and that were so long in coming.
Some might argue that the social rights Marshall described only referred to entitlement regarding a high school education, not College. That said, whilst a high school education may well have been more than adequate to set those from modest backgrounds on a worthy and rewarding career path back in 1949, in 2008 such a truncated education would significantly reduce life chances. Rights must move with the times and Marshall did say that English citizenship was very much an evolutionary process.
A College education can and should be for the many as long as the providers are giving value for money (VFM), offer quality education and strive to improve all aspects of the learner journey. Ofsted (Office for Standards in Education) make these judgements about College performance in either heavy, or light-touch inspections, every four years but mini inspections also take place through the annual inspection visit (AAV). Assessment boundaries for subject sector areas and the institution overall can be: Outstanding, Good, Satisfactory or Unsatisfactory. Those judged to be Outstanding only experience a light-touch inspection that is less comprehensive and less stressful on staff. The converse is true for those judged to merely satisfactory or unsatisfactory. One might say that this process helps to ensure that public funds are spent wisely. Furthermore, from September 2008 Colleges will also be judged according to a balanced scorecard of three dimensions known as the Framework for Excellence. This will grade Colleges according to how responsive they are in meeting the needs of employers and students. Additionally, their effectiveness in providing quality outcomes and quality provision will also be measured. Finally, Colleges will be assessed through an economic dimension which will judge their financial health, their resources and their ability to maintain financial control.
In short, Britain has no choice but to make a College education for the many, not just the few. Too few young people have a College education as it is and the statistics demonstrate that. As political credence in a flexi-price (cheap)labour market has long since gone, a flexi-skill (specialised) one is our only way forward. Colleges have a tremendous contribution to make towards moving the UK up the international skills hierarchy and securing the economic future of our country. However, poor organisational performance cannot and should not be tolerated by the tax-payer or any other of our stakeholders, least of all the students. That said, economically and philosophically a College education must be available for the many.