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(en) UK Solidarity Federation - DA #27 - A Lower Class Degree - What the HE White Paper really means.

From Worker <a-infos-en@ainfos.ca>
Date Thu, 19 Jun 2003 09:01:18 +0200 (CEST)


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New Labour has left a trail of broken promises over the last term and a
half since it came to office. Six years on from its "Education,
education, education" election refrain, what does the lie detector say
about New Labour and its Higher Education policy?
The overall aims of the Government’s recent HE White Paper
seem to be:
• To continue to compete well worldwide in the HE sector.
• To do something about class disparities in participation.
• To get 50% of 18-30 year olds into HE.
• To make HE (degrees) more responsive to the needs of business
and the economy overall.
• To ensure high professional standards and ‘excellence’ in
teaching and research.

The methods of achieving this, it claims, will partly be by changes in
funding, where institutes will be able to charge students
‘top-up’ fees. These ‘top-ups’ will range from nothing
(for those institutions that don’t attract the better-off students),
to £3,000 for those that do. This means that there will be more
freedom for the attractive ones and more criteria laid down for the
‘lesser’ institutes. There will be pressure on them to cut
costs, and government funding will be based on a move from the
degrees we know, to ‘Foundation Degrees’ that are ‘work
focused’. The work bit applies not to what students will do, nor
whether the system will ‘work’ effectively, but to the fact that
they will be job-fodder courses. The extent of the pressure for these is
evident in the government’s statement that "we will drive forward
with Foundation Degrees".

This means a ‘binary’ system (it’s actually a tripartite one
as we shall see), with the top institutes continuing to offer degrees, as
we know them, and having the bulk of research, along with increased
wages for researchers to match the level in the US. The bottom ones
will be restricted to ‘teaching’, and the title of
‘University’ will be restricted to those achieving
‘excellence’ in it; those lecturers who are ‘only’
teaching will not, apparently, need more money.

Ensuring ‘excellence’ is to be achieved through the use of 70
‘centres of excellence’ disseminating ‘best practice’
through a new ‘professional body’ (to replace the ILT by
2004), laying down the criteria for teaching by the use of courses for
lecturers.

Another method of achieving ‘excellence’ is through the use of
bonuses for certain people (to be decided by HEFC) and by tying
‘market supplements’ to ‘human resource strategies’.
‘Management’ develops these strategies, and will play the
‘key role in ‘leadership’ and have scope to
‘rationalise’ and negotiate ‘mergers’ between
institutes. ‘Excellence’ will also be maintained by
‘training’ external examiners in it, so that they can monitor the
degrees on offer and oversee the lecturers.

For these at the lower end of this new scale, degrees will become
more responsive to business and the economy by developing in
students the skills needed by business and the wider economy. This is
to be achieved by a high level of involvement from Research and
Development Agencies in each region. They will ensure that the new
‘teaching institutes’ match the supply of students to the
economic demands of the region, by bringing them together with
business and encouraging them to work together. Out of this comes a
third layer of institutes, some to be called ‘New Technology
Institutes’ (as they are mainly concerned with the technology
needed by industry), and others to be called ‘Knowledge
Exchanges’, where the knowledge coming out of the ‘research
institutes’ is matched to the regional economic demands, and
‘transferred’ by some miraculous process to the teaching
institutes.

The class aspect is dealt with by giving grants of £1,000 to poorer
students and some bursaries. These will be linked to the nature of the
degree and the vocational skills they are likely to acquire through the
foundation degrees they will be encouraged to go on. To help them
choose, the NUS will be producing forms of advice (counselling,
publicity, etc.) on the best places and those best for certain forms of
work.

Also, to make sure students are not away from work for too long,
degrees will be done over a three-semester year. This is possible,
since lecturers in ‘teaching institutes’ will no longer be doing
research over the summer. Degrees will, therefore, be studied over 2
years instead of 3.

At a meeting which included a question and answer session on the
White Paper, Margaret Hodge, Minister for Higher Education,
reiterated these points. She said there was a desire to expand the
numbers of 18-30 year olds in HE to ‘skill-up’ the labour
market and develop the ‘knowledge economy’. But, as
‘New Labour’ are ‘good socialists’, there is a focus on
the class divide in HE which, she said, had become wider recently.
They need to close the gap to achieve an ‘inclusive society’.
She also argued that there is a need to further develop the research
base, as ‘UK Plc’ has to compete in the global economy, and
too many top researchers are being ‘lost to the States’ (hence
the need for a wage rise for them). There also needs to be more links
with the ‘local and regional economies’ in order to develop a
stronger ‘civil society’ (this is where the RDAs come in).

All this means a need for more funding, and she said that they intend
to increase funding for the HE sector by 6% each year for the next
three years. But this won’t be enough to make up for the ‘loss
under the Tories’ (what’s happened for the last six years
under ‘New Labour’, she didn’t say); therefore, they have
to look to the students to pay more. They will do this because
students, apparently, achieve a ‘personal benefit’ of ‘50%
higher wages’ through doing a degree and, as they can’t raise
taxes because they might lose votes (they are already worried about
the rise in April), this can only be done by making students pay more
through increased loans. She also mentioned that these loans are
‘only about £13,000’, and assumed that we are becoming
used to going into debt and that loans don’t count against public
expenditure, whereas grants do. She did accept that there is
resistance to loans from the poorer students; therefore, there will be a
sliding scale of means tested grants, from nothing up to £1,000.
Institutes will also be able to charge ‘variable fees by 2006’.
There will be bursaries for the young people of low-income families.
This will, therefore, ‘open up access’. They can’t afford to
go back to grants ‘as in her days at university’, as there only
used to be 6-7% of young people in HE, and now they want 50%.
Loans are the tool to extend and widen participation.

She didn’t say what happens to the other 50% of 18-30 year olds
or those over 30. Nor did she mention the ‘foundation
degrees’. I began my questioning with the over 30s aspect. She
replied that they would still be able to access low-income grants and
so on, and would not be pushed out, as she has a strong belief in
‘lifelong learning’. On reflection, I can only assume that when
a major proportion of young people gain degrees, then there is an
assumption that there will be less need for older people to take them
as the years go by.

I then got onto the key question of the nature of the new degrees by
quoting the White Paper and its ‘work focused’ nature. She
confirmed this to be the case, saying that they were ‘more like the
old HND’s’, i.e. over two years, but based on the ‘skills
and competencies’ needed by the local and regional economies.
The White Paper makes it clear that the curriculum will be guided by
large corporates and companies through the RDAs, and, clearly, far
from having a problem with this, she is enthusiastic about it.

Most ‘normal’ people can see the fact that business control of
the curriculum is not only ‘anti-social’ and unfree, but also
results in a very narrow curriculum, more in the realm of training than
education. Obviously, the idea is to re-inforce a tiered degree system,
where the elite still do ‘proper degrees’ and the working class
do a poorer version which merely trains them for work. It seems that
Margaret Hodge and New Labour don’t want working class people
to do proper ‘educational’ degrees.

At this point in the debate, the chairman stepped in, saying that he
went to one of the ‘old tech’s’ in the 1940s and it
didn’t do him any harm. He then granted Hodge the last word,
which came straight from the IEA version of ‘education for the
market place’. She pointed out that tying learning to business
needs allows for the development of the ‘skills and
competencies’ which improve profits; this encourages investment
and, therefore, more employment, the ‘trickle down effect’, in
other words.

Of course, talk of the new degrees and targets leads on to the missing
50%, and whether they may be washing cars (and other minimum
wage jobs) all their lives (as they’d missed the boat), and whether
she expected this to get votes from people other than the Daily Mail
letter writers who New Labour base their ideas of public opinion on.
However, another chap chipped in with a question about the size of
the loans. He pointed out that for poorer students, with no access to
funds from their parents (he may have been eluding to the young
‘two flats Blair’), the debt they end up with is more like
£24,000, as they even have to borrow to buy food. This meant that he
doubted whether they’d get the 50%, asking ‘did they really
expect young people to go into so much debt?

No problems for Margaret, she quoted figures off the top of her head
(perhaps proving that ‘proper’ degrees are lost on the likes of
us), showing beyond doubt that the debts ‘only amount to about
£13,000 at the most, and they’ll only have to start paying it back
when they earn over £15,000 a year. Perhaps those with the
‘new’ degrees will struggle to get more than this, since
they’ll be so shite... With that, the meeting had to end, as
‘she’d had a long day’, and had to drive back to London
stuffed with free food, a worn-out mouth and an ever-growing nose.

An interesting aspect of the meeting was the presence of ‘toady,
pretend high-flyers’. The audience was very small (about fifteen,
in accommodation for two hundred) and, along with Bolton
Institute’s Principal, there were a few be-suited young people
taking pictures of Margaret Hodge with the latest digital cameras. The
extent to which some people go in order to ingratiate themselves never
ceases to amaze – one young man in a sharp suit asked a totally
irrelevant supportive question (he had one quibble about a post
graduate tax to show his flair). However, it served the purpose of
demonstrating the sickening and pitiful depths to which some people
will stoop to show their allegiance to the ‘blessed Margaret’.
Of course, he hopes it shows he’s a prime candidate for elevation
up the ranks of ‘New Labour’. He is, obviously, a
‘moderniser’ and ‘one of them’ - prime tosser, more
like. I couldn’t help thinking, on the way home, what on earth he
has in common with us, and how he could possibly expect us to vote
for him. It’s no wonder less and less people are voting; there are
only so many Daily Mail readers.

Many people may feel that the White Paper on HE makes sense. After
all, lecturers get far too many holidays; lots are bone idle; degrees bear
no resemblance to the real world; and students only spend their
fantastic amounts of money on beer, drugs and going out. It will do us
all good, the economy will grow, there’ll be more jobs, and the
‘trickle down effect’ will really blossom.

Others, however, with a bit more sense (and not complete
sycophants) will see this for the totalitarian piece of legislation that it
is. They are supported in this by the fact that there is no reference, in
the White Paper, to any consultation with students to see if this is
what they really want for their money. There is no reference to any
research that will be undertaken into teaching styles to find out what
‘teaching excellence’ actually is. Discussion has ended since
theories of education were dropped from teacher training. The whole
project is ‘top-down’ and is a simple continuation of
Thatcherite IEA-led initiatives designed to mould the world into their
image.

Many lecturers can see this in operation with their own eyes at work,
which is a bit closer to reality than the Daily Mail campaigns about
‘thick’ working class people wasting their time doing degrees.
Foundation degree tutors have been taken on at a higher rate of pay for
a lower level of teaching. We are continually assured that our students
are a ‘problem’, as they are mainly working class, and we are
solving the problem with ‘widening participation’. We at
Bolton Institute have been told on several occasions that our students
really want to do a ‘Youth and Community’ degree, when
those of us who deal with admissions have never been asked for it.

In fact, all of the evidence on the ground supports the view that
potential students want to do a ‘proper degree’. Indeed, many
working class people see NVQ type qualifications (Foundation
Degrees are actually NVQ level 4) as ‘not worth the paper they
are written on’.

The reality is that the government and its lackeys in institutes like
ours are already implementing the White Paper before it has become
policy. This totalitarianism mirrors the management style many of us
are seeing in our workplaces. Moreover, the project is based on the
myth of Plato’s three kinds of people; those intelligent enough to
lead, those in the middle who implement the decisions of the elite, and
those at the bottom who are only fit to learn how to follow
instructions. It seems our students fit into the latter ‘type’,
and therefore should not be encouraged to think and question. Hence,
vocationalism is the right way to go for working class education, and
those who embrace this will get paid more for becoming Foundation
degree tutors. Higher rewards come to those willing to play blind
acceptance of government policies.

For the better-off, it is status quo, as we need leaders who can think.
The working class, on the other hand, will be allowed into HE as long
as it is restricted to training and doesn’t make them think. Real
degrees will be for the 6-7% again, just as in Margaret’s days. The
rest of us can wait for the ‘trickle down’, like we’ve been
told to for over 200 years.


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