Bedford College. Image, Simon Speed, public domain
Today, the annual cycle of the education system cranks round, as another cohort of nervous school leavers discover their A Level results. If their route ahead of them looks like a debt-ridden treadmill, that’s because it is one. University debt repayment operates as a tax on those unable to afford fees upfront – so almost everyone – and erects a barrier to any repurposing of higher education beyond servicing the needs of a narrow, centuries-old elite.
More than ever, we are in need of an alternative vision for the education system, and, at last, someone is providing one. This week is also witnessing a series of detailed policy announcements which form the backbone of a vision which is daring and absolutely necessary. The National Education Service which is being announced by Jeremy Corbyn goes far beyond the abolition of tuition fees, venturing to equip everyone with skills that the Conservatives have spent their years in office draining and wasting.
At the moment, tuition fees are breeding an insidious psychology. Transforming education into an item that one may ‘purchase’ cultivates a logic in which the university is a private investment through which we buy our dream jobs. ‘Employability’ takes precedence over the nourishment of learning and skills, both eroding the public utility yielded from higher education and abandoning graduates to the anonymity of a job market still gasping for life.
With the Tories’ higher education reforms, currently cruising towards parliamentary ratification, the inevitability of this logic is coming to full fruition; through the absurdly named Teaching Excellence Framework, universities are to be ranked on customer satisfaction and employment metrics – rather than any serious qualitative measure of learning – and so directly threatening academic staff with further casualization and redundancy.
Indeed, opening our university system to the forces of the market in such a way has come with its own shining measures of cruelty, with the Tories scrapping support for disabled students and maintenance grants for those from low income backgrounds and so making terrible farce of the promise to ‘sharing prosperity’ with which Theresa May ascended to the premiership.
Labour needs to reassert the higher education system as the social utility it was once held to be – one that is available to all, democratic and ultimately free, and whose staff are resourced to their potential by a tax on corporations. Corbyn’s pledge to this effect is serious, and deeply encouraging.
But the crisis extends so far beyond our universities. Every layer of our education system is under attack; over the last few years, these institutions have been so broadly and fundamentally fractured that it’s been difficult to imagine how the pieces might ever be swept back together.
The Tories scuppered a lifeline in the Education Maintenance Allowance; our Adult Skills Budget has been starved; the spectre of forced academisation still haunts our schools; and further education has suffered cuts so extreme and irresponsible, according to the Association of Colleges, that it could be all but extinct by 2020.
The Conservatives, for whom the kind of classical education that put Boris Johnson into government exists to distinguish their elite from those they govern, have launched a frontal assault on Britain’s entire education sector – and, so far, they’ve gotten away with it.
Corbyn’s pledge for a national education service could give Labour the language and the artillery to fight back; it demands that we reimagine this country’s education as a single whole and as a public good, serving everyone with irrefutable equality and fairness, where an attack on one is an attack on all.
Sadly, the age in which we live radiates a capricious and almost arbitrary reverence for universities. The market values someone like myself – a history graduate – apparently with plentiful quantities of ‘transferrable skills’ much too highly above those trained with the real vocational abilities upon which our society depends in order to function.
Corbyn’s national education service recognises this – and does not hold some special candle to the abolition of tuition fees. Universal childcare provision is absolutely vital for putting disadvantaged children onto an early and vital equal footing with those whose parents can afford nursery spaces; investment in further and vocational education will provide us with the skilled workers needed to launch our society into its globalised and technological future; and a fully funded university system, with living grants, could make it truly accessible to all.
A national education service will reinvigorate our frozen and decaying job market, where students currently scrap blindly amongst one another. People have been shut out of education for far too long, and prejudiced in the pursuit; only a vision committed to fighting for the social good of an entire life’s education can turn things around.