|Works better than you'd think.|
|Works better than you'd think.|
|What we preach.|
|Such an element.|
"Gaddafi is a tyrant, but it is up to the people of Libya to decide what happens next in their country and not for any single foreign government."
Seeing Michael Gove on Question Time on Thursday (13/01/10) was illuminating. Even one of my Labour friends was drawn to comment that it was “the best QT performance I’ve ever seen from a Conservative.” Amidst this sterling performance, the most interesting by far was the vigorous debate between Gove and some audience members over the new English Baccalaureate (henceforth EB). It was an exchange that highlighted not only Mr Gove’s inspirations and principles but also shone the spotlight on the ideological malaise that has so undermined the British education system in recent decades.
The theme taken up by a quintet of teachers in the Question Time audience – and endorsed by Labour-sympathisers on the panel – was that the EB represented a ‘narrowing’ of academic focus. Diane Abbot stated that the EB meant that its constituent subjects (which are English, Mathematics, Sciences, Foreign/Ancient Language and History/Geography) would be perceived as a ‘tier one’, and that this was a bad thing. I can think of nothing else that so clearly demonstrates how out of touch Labour has been on education. Does Diane really think that there is a majority in the country that doesn’t think that English, Maths and Science warrant special attention? Mr Gove, at one point, reeled off a list of figures from the international league tables showing how the standard of education in the UK relative to the rest of the world had slumped during the last ten years of Labour government. If Diane is any indicator, there would be no change from that course were they in office now.
However, even more worrying than Labour’s position was that taken by some of the teachers themselves. One particularly striking example serves as a suitable illustration. A female teacher in the audience suggested that young women from underprivileged backgrounds “might not be able to have the confidence to take on an academic subject”, and that these teenagers would subsequently feel “like they’ve been pushed to the bottom of the heap”. This attitude, if representative of a substantial proportion of the teaching profession, should be of great concern to Gove and anyone else responsible for educational reform. What it suggests, is that if a child doesn’t have the self-confidence to think they can succeed in an academic subject, then that should be accepted and the child directed to whatever courses their low self-esteem leads them to selecting. Instead of pushing children to work harder and achieve good grades in rigorous and valuable subjects, this approach risks further undermining the core academic subjects that lie at the heart of a well-rounded education.
This latest mutation of ‘trendy teaching’ is hugely detrimental to helping a child recognise and fulfil their true potential and thus to social mobility, which has stagnated over recent decades. The courses selected for the EB (aside from some quibbling about what constitutes a legitimate humanity) are broadly those that are widely recognised as being intellectually rigorous, socially useful and valued by employers. Children are ill-served if they are mothered through school without being properly informed of the value of these subjects, and the underlying assumption that children from poor or troubled backgrounds aren’t up to an academic education represents the soft bigotry of lowered expectations, at the very least.
I was an under-achieving student for most of my school career, crippled by a lack of belief in my own abilities. The probable course of my life was changed forever when I was lucky enough to get into one of Buckinghamshire’s Grammar Schools. There, the teachers were supportive but firm, and never ceased to both encourage me to achieve what they recognised as my potential and to upbraid me when I failed to achieve the standards they knew I could. I was also lucky enough to have parents of a similar cast of mind. Under their tutelage I managed to pull my grades around, achieved excellent A Levels and have since gone to a good university. I could never have done that had my teachers passively accepted my own pessimistic assessment of my capabilities.
Those claims made by Mr Gove’s opponents that this government is placing too much emphasis on a narrow band of academic achievement do not stand up to scrutiny, for the government is both re-opening and re-imagining the old technical colleges and via the Free Schools program, relinquishing the micro-managerial power that Labour sought to assume over schools and putting resources and emphasis into the long-neglected trades and professions. Of course it is not bringing back Grammar Schools (a policy that I, and others of all political stripes who were lucky enough to attend them lament) but a supportive and constructive yet firm teaching environment is not conjured or banished by the presence of an entrance exam. The Education Secretary must accompany his structural reshaping of our education system with a vigorous challenge to the entrenched attitudes within the teaching profession that do so much to sell children short. No student who is ‘spared’ an academic education and then fails to be all that they could have been has cause to thank their teachers.
Do you ever wish you had less contact time, or that the university spent less money on you? A lecturers strike is a direct contact hours cut that diverts money away from students. If that sounds appealing, then you should consider supporting any and all industrial action taken by the University and College Union (UCU) over the coming months. If not, then you should oppose industrial action by lecturers, and so should the representatives you elected to defend your interests in the students union.
I’ve defended tuition fees on these pages before, and those interested in reading that argument can find it on The Mancunion’s website. Instead of repeating myself here with another examination of the structural problems with higher education funding, I’ll look at whether a strike could work, and whether the costs of a strike, let alone the costs of a strike winning, are worth it for students.
Before I go on though, it is worth remembering that the reason for the drastic restructuring of the way that higher education is operated and funded is that the previous Labour government vastly increased access to higher education to people from diverse and often disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds. The days of free higher education and one to one tutorials where the days when the percentage of school-leavers going to university was in single figures, and that narrow strata was largely wealthy. Tuition fees are the price we pay for access in any realistic scenario.
So would a strike actually work, and would the cost of its success be worth it in reward for students? The normal way a strike operates is simple: labour ceases to work, thus stopping the production of product. Without product to sell, the company loses profit and risks losing its customers to other, still-working companies. This doesn’t translate very well into the university model, because the university takes your money at the beginning of each year and once you’re signed up to a course it is very difficult to simply drop it and up sticks to another university. Thus short strikes – i.e. strikes a student could support without it (usually) having a serious impact on their studies – are hugely unlikely to work. The university already has your money, and you’re not going anywhere.
A longer strike might deliver some results, but what then? Obviously, a long strike is hugely detrimental to students in terms of contact hours and teaching. The chances of a lecturer strike actually overturning or reversing government policy is minimal. Worse still, the result of any vaguely realistic victory is the preservation of a pension timebomb that will do more than any government or university cut to sabotage the future of higher education.
Final-salary pensions such as those offered through the USS are a model that has been almost completely abandoned in the private sector because, with an ageing population and greatly increased life-expectancy, they are completely unsustainable; a lot more retirees are living a lot longer than they did with final salary pensions were introduced. The maintenance of such schemes in the public sector is a major reason that improvements in that sector in the last decade are not even close to being commensurate to ballooning costs. In short our university, like everyone else, can no longer afford its current pension scheme.
If one accepts that the phasing out of final-salary pensions is inevitable if you don’t want to bankrupt the university (which would be bad for students, obviously) then negotiating new terms for new entrants is vital. If we don’t renegotiate pensions, where does the money come from? The University could levy the money through higher fees, which even under Browne remain capped well below the necessary price, and/or it could cut back in modernisation and investment programs. Put bluntly, it could substitute long-term investment in developing resources and facilities to fund what amount to straight short-term costs (and a long-term disaster) in the form of a completely unsustainable pension scheme.
As a humanities student myself, the situation is particularly dire. My contact time is minimal, and every lecture and seminar covers a whole area of a module that we won’t come back to again. Missing topics and losing precious contact hours not only wastes the money that I have already paid for them at the start of the year, but narrows the range of material upon which I can be assessed and reduces my opportunities to learn. Why on earth, then, would I support a strike?
If you support lecturer strikes as part of a wider struggle against right-of-centre government, then this article isn’t for you. If you think the university can improve provision, widen access and modernise facilities while maintaining low fees and inflated labour costs, I hope you find the end of the rainbow in time. But if you want to protect your contact hours, see the university spend on long-term investment in facilities and resources, and avoid needless deterioration of contact hours and education quality caused by inefficient spending that doesn’t benefit students, then you should oppose any strikes by lecturers, and your students union should support you.