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Higher education is not improving

BaldtwoJohn Bald says the coalition Government inherited a higher education system in a dreadful state - it is not getting any better

Coalition was always going to be difficult, and for me the most difficult part of it, apart from the lack of action on what I see as the Criminals' and Terrorists' Rights Act, has been in higher education. I watched in horror during the last government as universities were hammered by a huge increase in numbers without the funds needed to ensure that people got a university education when they got there.

Today's students, outside Oxbridge, no longer have the  daily  personal contact with highly qualified lecturers who have time to work with them on an individual basis that has always been at the heart of British university education. I had this in one of the first new wave universities in the early seventies, and my degree was at least one full class higher as a result.  

On the continent, and in many American universities, students have never had such personal support.  At Nanterre, in the early seventies, the Rector boasted of a failure rate of  50% a year, leaving roughly an eighth of starters with a degree - and even those who passed had a qualification that did not lead to a job.

Then we had the fees increase, presented as a "graduate tax", which for me is no more or less than a tax on brains,  the one form of property that I mistakenly  thought was  beyond  government's reach. Totalitarian regimes try to smother intellect, though they never quite succeed, but none has yet  thought of taxing it. Neil Kinnock wanted to tax it, presumably on the grounds that it was a tax he would not have to pay, but to find Conservatives taxing intellect seemed beyond the pale. It still does.

I discovered, late in life, that I was a baby boomer. When I first saw the expression, on a version of Trivial Pursuit, I thought it referred to a noisy infant.  However, slow learner that I am, I now understand that it means someone born shortly after the second world war, and so pampered, and now to be punished. Successful baby boomers can, of course, pay the fees from their ill-gotten gains (ie what they've saved from a lifetime of hard work).

For the others, there are loans, and, more to the point, interest on the loans, that will put a millstone round their necks for the rest of their lives. It's no consolation to say that you don't pay back until your earnings reach a certain threshold - the longer that takes, the more the interest accumulates and the less chance you have of getting your head above water.

Faced with this choice, a young person I know has just decided to get a job as a trainee dental nurse rather than go to one of the universities presided over by Dr Les "Patterson" Ebdon, who calls everyone who disagrees with him a snob, and whose institutions specialise in degrees that   I suggest should be renamed "Ebdons", in his honour.  It would have taken this young person three years to obtain her Ebdon, three years without income, without experience, and with expenses her parents could not easily afford. She would have been no better qualified with it than without it - just look at current graduate employment statistics  - and might even have been lucky to land the job she's got now.

For some, she's taken a short-sighted choice that denies her access to the professions - in this case, to dentistry.  For others, myself included, she's avoided a trap. Mass higher education does not lead to mass graduate employment. The final slamming of the door has been the increase in Open University fees, so that the option of avoiding the brains tax by studying in your spare time has been removed.

So, all in all, watching the course of higher education policy, and the continuous negative press that it is bringing us, I see nothing but damage and lost votes. Higher education was handed to us in a dreadful state by Labour, with no obvious way of making it better. It may or may not be getting worse - the fees are at least making young people think about whether a degree, and particularly an Ebdon, is the best choice for them. But it is not getting better, and the resentment it is creating will take a long time to die down.


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