Tag Archives: higher education

The poor: deserving or not?

This post on the BBC website got me thinking. The latest recession has re-polarised talk about class in British Society. In particular, emphasis has fallen upon one particular section of society: ‘the poor’. The semantics are important – the proletariat, the plebians, the working class, and so on are all names for the lower rung on the ladder of society. Most of them constructed and imposed from above. But do the poor deserve to be poor? Do the deserve help? Are the rich undeservedly rich? I spent three years at Uni looking at ideas of class, and what were are hearing now is all too familiar.

I don’t think it would be remiss of me to state that of the population at large, the poorest have the most to lose in any recession. Their jobs are always the first to go. People who generally make ends meet without any luxury will suffer the most from losing their jobs – mortgages unpaid, food and fuel bills struggling to be met, etc. The working class are also the kind of people who have the most to lose when services are cut – such as state education, healthcare and social services – because in most cases they lack the resources to go private. Middle and upper classes, however, can well afford to pay for private education, private healthcare, etc etc. And why should they care if other people cannot look after themselves? Now, more than any time since the Second World War, our senior Ministers are made up of people who know nothing of how the majority of the population life from day to day.

Most of these services, provided by the state, are still relatively modern. State education for all only developed in the very late Nineteenth Century, while the modern welfare state was born out of the Beveridge report during Second World War. So, state help for those in society who are struggling is a relatively modern theory. And I cannot help but think that there are plenty of people – namely those who are doing very well for themselves – who would be quite happy to take things back to the Nineteenth Century way of doing things, the ‘fuck you I’m alright Jack’ approach. For hundreds of years the upper classes held the view that the poor being poor was their own fault. I’ve never read a satisfactory explanation as to why this should have been – after all, until perhaps the Twentieth Century the opportunities for poor people to advance themselves were virtually nil, class barriers being all but impermeable. One of the most important ways that poorer people can get on life is via a University Education. Until soon, when the ConDem‘s policies will restore Higher Education to being a privilege of the few.

Talking about class, is class as a term still relevant in modern society? I think so, its just slightly different to our old ‘working-middle-upper’ constructions. You could almost argue that there is a ‘non-working’ class, of people who, for whatever reason, do not work. Either they are long-term unemployed, disabled, or haver simply made a life choice to not bother. In my experience, working people tend to have more disdain for non-working people than anyone else. Why should they have the same standard of living as me, they might wonder, if I work and pay taxes, and they don’t work and receive everything for free?

This brings up the theme of ‘work’. Work does seem to be the gold standard for whether somebody is deserving of help from the state. I find it hard to argue with the idea that somebody who loses their job through no fault of their own deserves help. Also, people who have worked, but become ill or for whatever reason cannot work. Or people who cannot work at all, through no fault of their own. But I cannot help but feel that all the time working people are being squeezed for taxes and facing the threat of redundancy, it is not quite right for people who have no intention of contributing anything to society to take out of society. The problem is, those looking on the lower classes from above tend to lump everyone in this bracket. But does the working class exist now as it did 60 or so years ago? I feel not, as work itself is such a different term, what used to be the working class is now so much more fracturous.

Norman Tebbitt famously said that the unemployed should ‘get on their bikes and find a job’. Expect to hear more patronising headlines like that in the next few months. Whilst there are plenty of people out there who are content to sit on their arse at home doing nothing and getting paid for it, many thousands of people are going to find themselves out of work, looking hard for work, but finding nothing. Telling them to ‘get on their bikes’ when there arent any jobs to pedal after in the first place shows how out of touch some politicians are. The phrases might be different, but the mindset is the same.

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Mandelson: ‘more will miss out on degrees’

Regular readers will know that I invariably have a lot to say about Education policy, particulary regarding Universities. As someone who grew up and went through University in the first generation to be charged to study for a degree, I was very intrigued to read this report on the BBC News website.

Lord Mandelson – who has had the role of Universities Secretary added to his plethora of titles – has said that there will be more disappointed would-be students than usual this year, adding university had always been competitive. The answer is not to guarantee places for every university hopeful, he said. This is ever so slightly hypcrotical, as he was a member of the Labour Government that turned Higher Education into a business, and tried to force as many young people as possible into studying for degrees, regardless of whether they could afford it or even need it.

He even goes as far as to say that the traditional degree should no longer be a focus for future growth. Funnily enough, the Labour Government was responsible for making the degree such a fundamental part of education that there are more people with degrees than without, and plenty of people with meaningless degrees out of work while we have a shortage of skilled workers. Plenty of people with poor degrees in media studies of computer games science would have been better off doing an apprenticeship or some kind of vocational course.

Mandleson also had this to say: “It makes no sense either in terms of the cost to the public purse or the provision of quality teaching, which remains critical to the credibility of higher education. A large scale, untargeted further expansion of full-time three-year degrees without any real attention to what these additional students are studying, or how well it equips them for life at work”.

Well I’ve got news for Lord Mandelson – that is exactly the situation that his Government created, and has been ongoing for over 10 years now. Speaking as someone who entered University in 2002 and graduated in 2005, Higher Education is, quite frankly, in a mess. People are going to university because they can, because their mates do, because their parents want them to, or because of the misguided belief that it makes them ‘grow up’. Studying at University should not be a ‘walk-in’, you should have to earn the right to be there. The sheer numbers have diluted quality to the point where a degree is next to worthless.

Whilst I applaud the general idea of making University accesible for all regardless of their background – especially as someone who is the first graduate in my family – I think the Government went the wrong way about it. Higher Education was undoubtedly for the privileged few, but throwing the doors open to all and sundry was not the way to change things for the better. The sheer number of students forced the Government into introducing loans and fees, whereas Scotland has proven that Higher Education can be provided without charging the earth for it. And while Higher Education became a business, it never acquired any kind of customer focus – Universities still revolve around lecturers and research. Even though the students pay their wages.

Chief executive of the Royal Society of Chemistry Dr Richard Pike said: “No longer should the government be paying 18-year-olds to start courses on celebrity journalism, drama with waste management, or international football business management. These courses should be “kicked into touch”, especially at a time when the UK was desperately short of funding into areas like Alzheimer’s and renewable energy.” Wise words indeed.

What is needed is a complete rethink of Higher Education, in terms of how it fits in with society and industry. Lord Mandelson’s comments are the closest we will get to an admission that Labour’s Higher Education policy has failed. My worry is that an incoming Government full of Old Etonians will use a sledgehammer to crack this particular walnut.

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new vision for Universities?

Lord Mandelson has laid out his vision for the future of English universities, stressing the “customer experience” of students and ties with business.

Speaking on Radio 4, he said that students should be provided with more information and also promised a review of University funding. Lord Mandelson said social mobility must be promoted more and universities were not “factories for workers”. But he said universities also could not be islands or ivory towers and had a crucial role in the country’s economic prosperity.

From a personal perspective, I feel that Higher Education is something that makes or breaks a country. Get it right and you have a flow of well qualified young people into industry. Get it wrong, and you have a glut of young people with poor degrees in irrelevant subjects.

Maybe I weas naive, but when I started my degree, I thought that universities were about students. After three years, I changed my mind considerably. They are about lecturers and researchers. International students are quite well looked after, as they provide quite a bit of income. Students are almost treated as annoying distractions from research, even though they pay the wages. There are too many Ivory towers in Academia. While Universities have become a business, they have not adopted any kind of customer focus.

You really do not get your money worth from University. The contact time with lecturers is minimal, the quality of teaching is just not there, and the only evidence of investment is in big swanky new buildings. The emphasis is all wrong. It feels like one big sausage factory, complete with a Vice-Chancellor turning the handle. For some reason the Government seem obsessed with the amount of people leaving University. Quantity over quality. People feel pressured into going to Uni, or go because they dont know what else to do. Does the country really need thousands of media graduates, when we are short of plumbers and electricians?

It is all too easy as well to drift through University and come out with a below par grade. Too many people go to Uni to ‘grow up’, which is very well but you’re there to learn, first and foremost. If you can’t do that then you shouldn’t be there. Also, I have seen far too many well-off people breezing through Uni, when there are probably countless poorer people who would love the opportunity to further themselves.

My solution would be to limit the amount of places at University, provide a fairer level playing field and allow people to progress based on their talent, enthusiasm and potential, not their wealth. Universities also need to be taken to task, too often they are a law unto themselves with regard to policy and spending.

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