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As the new term begins, Britain's colleges are packed with more students than ever before. And, thanks to the 'upgrading' of polytechnics, many more of them will now be university students. These might seem like changes for the better. But, says Penny Robson, today this massive expansion represents a real cutback in the higher education system

Access to what?

By the year 2000 it is estimated that one in three young people will be entering higher education. The government claims that by widening access to education it can create new opportunities for everyone. But behind the egalitarian rhetoric lie other concerns which have nothing to do with improving education. The latest shake up of higher education has primarily been inspired by the rapid increase in youth unemployment and the need to cutback public spending.

'In 1979, only one young person in eight went on to higher education. Today, it is one in five. More resources have helped provide more opportunities than ever before.' - John Major, 1991.

Brixton man is visionary on the projected college intake, but less clear-sighted on the question of funding. The truth is that the government is increasing student numbers at the same time as it is cutting the resources available to educate each one of them.

In last year's autumn public spending statement, the government announced the following spending increases for the academic year 1992-93. The polytechnics get a 12 per cent cash increase--7.4 per cent in real terms, after accounting for inflation. This extra funding will have to cover a nine per cent increase in student numbers. For universities there is a 3.8 per cent increase in real terms, to pay for a 5.8 per cent increase in student numbers. The government expects colleges to cover the gap with 'efficiency gains'.

Since it now appears that these projections underestimated the numbers of new entrants into higher education, it seems certain that the 'efficiency gains' will have to be substantial. A draft report produced by the Institute for Public Policy Research estimates that spending per head across all higher education institutions will fall by 20 per cent in this academic year. A 20 per cent cut in what were already inadequate resources will leave the new generation of students with next to nothing.

On the margin

The government's new funding methodology promises a core/margin approach. This means that only a core of funding is guaranteed, the rest has to be fought for. Even the core funds are not guaranteed to keep pace with inflation. Margin finances will only be given for expansion of teaching. No allowance will be made for increased capital expenditure - which means that the huge expansion in student numbers will often have to take place within the existing buildings.

All colleges are desperate to pack in students in order to guarantee as much funding as possible. Every college is now restructuring - not to improve the quality of education, but to expand its student base and so strengthen its demands for money.

Many polytechnics have taken advantage of new rules which allow them to 'upgrade' and become universities. This name-changing does not improve the education they offer, but it does help to attract more entrants. Meanwhile, some colleges have already expanded so much that they are franchising out some parts of their courses to local Further Education colleges - despite warnings from the education inspectors that FE colleges are not equipped to teach degree courses.

Hidden unemployment

When Kenneth Baker first introduced the government's higher education reforms in the late 1980s, with plans to freeze grants, make students take out loans and encourage private sector sponsorship, they were popularly understood as a move to restrict education to those who could afford it. The 1987 Department of Education and Science document 'Meeting the challenge' declared an intention to remould education to be more closely related to the needs of the labour market. It made great play on the low levels of graduate unemployment.

By the time of the 1991 white paper on higher education, however, it was clear that there were no jobs and that the cash-strapped private sector was unlikely to sponsor training programmes. It was against this background that the government introduced its new emphasis on expanding student numbers and widening access to education. It was a device which would allow the authorities to pretend that school leavers swelling the ranks of the unemployed were really all university undergraduates.

Improving access to higher education sounds like an attractive idea. But when the motive is to save money and massage jobless figures, it is another matter. In the current climate of economic austerity, widening access can only mean downgrading higher education for the majority of young people. Most universities are becoming rather like YTS schemes, without the T for practical training. Young people are being crammed into inadequate classrooms without proper resources, indeed often without lecturers, and told that they are being educated. If they manage to stand three years of this, all that awaits many of them at the end of it is a quick trip back to the proper dole office.

No doubt many young people are cynical about the 'opportunities' on offer. Yet in the absence of any alternative, education can seem like the most viable survival strategy. Despite the shoddiness of the colleges, students seem to be taking their academic progress very seriously, some making big personal and financial sacrifices to improve on their qualifications.

Low expectations

Back in the thirties, faced with economic crisis and mass unemployment, the government adopted a similar approach to today. They set up juvenile instruction centres for the jobless, many in large northern towns, and made attendance compulsory. These institutions were nicknamed 'dole schools' and treated with cynicism. Even today those that were forced to attend will tell you that they were introduced to keep young people off the streets. The fact that more people are prepared to take seriously the government's modern dole schools shows how low expectations are today.

It is understandable that young people might look to the promise of an education as a way out. But there can be no sympathy for the response of college managements. They lecture staff about the exciting challenge of operating with fewer resources. Nor have the academics and college teaching staff taken up the cudgels against the reforms. It must be clear to many lecturers that John Patten's plans are not the 'access for all' that they dreamed of in the sixties and seventies. However the threat of redundancy seems to have dulled the critical faculties. In a desperate bid to maintain funding for their area of work, they too are swept up in the drive to pack as many young bodies as possible into the lecture theatre.

The only individuals actively campaigning against the reforms come from Oxbridge, where the colleges' own income and reputation protects academics from some of the pressures to sing-a-long-a-Major. Elsewhere, the government can carry off its phoney 'opportunity knocks' routine because a large proportion of the academics will go along with it. Packaged in the language of participation and improving access, cutbacks become easier to swallow.

Borrowed buzzwords

The 1991 white paper on higher education reads more like an extract from a Bill of Rights than a celebration of the market economy. According to the government, the main aim of its reforms is now to end the stuffy elitism which has dominated higher education in this country. The packaging of the reforms in the Majoresque language of egalitarianism has disoriented many of the Tories' traditional opponents in education.

The government boasts of having destroyed the 'binary divide' between the aloof academic universities and the flexible and practical polytechnics. There is now a whole vocabulary of buzzwords, borrowed from the American education system and Japanese management seminars, which promotes the repackaging of college courses as an exercise in increased openness. 'Semesterisation' and 'modularisation' are the most popular types of reorganisation. Each of them breaks down the structure of a course, apparently to allow more flexibility and choice. In reality, the aim is to make education a cheaper and more saleable commodity.

Semesterisation involves breaking down the college year into self-contained time units, or semesters, which often run right through the calendar year. It is supposed to allow those who cannot afford to study full time to instead take different sections of a degree course at different times
--for example, one semester each summer. In a situation where education was considered intrinsically valuable and was properly resourced, this could be a useful development. But today, when its primary aim is to enrol more students while economising on the use of lecturers and space, semesterisation must mean lower quality education.

Three into two

A second aim of semesterisation is to allow full-time students to compress their degree course into two years instead of three. This confirms that the reforms are not really motivated by educational concerns. Higher education should not be about trying to remember as much as possible in as short a time as possible. On the contrary, a quality education must maximise the time available to study and to think. Critical thought, however, is out of fashion in the climate of fast-food education which semesterisation reflects. That is reaffirmed by the way in which semesterisation turns college lecturers into full-time teachers, most of whom will have no time to conduct research of their own.

Modularisation involves breaking up courses into disconnected segments, which the student can select and put together in a package in order to accumulate the necessary points for a degree. By allowing students more say in the content of their courses, modularisation is presented as an exercise in consumer choice. In fact, it means undermining the quality of a coherent course, and allowing college authorities to cut costs.

Lowest level

Modularisation tends to produce a sort of lowest common denominator education. For example, a module on biochemistry can include students studying to be nurses, doctors, chemists, biologists and engineers. In the past they would have been taught separately, and for good reason. One lecture cannot possibly meet all of the needs of such a varied group. The consequence of this from the student's point of view is to produce an incoherent and inferior degree. From the point of view of college management, modularisation is a way to cut back on teaching resources, and to create small education and training packages which are more marketable to students who cannot be in full-time education.

All manner of other euphemisms have been invented to legitimise the changes and disguise their real meaning. Distance learning, student-centred learning and open learning are all different labels for low-cost, low-quality, do-it-yourself education. When colleges boast about their videos and microfiche resources, what they mean is that they can no longer afford books.

Perhaps the worst aspect of the downgrading of education is the attempt by the authorities to suggest that their aim is to give the underprivileged a better deal. Franchising is now being presented in this fashion. A policy introduced to cut back spending on degree courses ends up as an opportunity for students (particularly 'disadvantaged' students) to get on to university courses by studying the first year of their degree at a local FE college.

Equally inferior

The educationalists claim that they have introduced franchising to help achieve equality for women, blacks, disabled people and the working classes. The idea that you can solve social inequalities by offering people a place on a college course has always been flawed. The notion that you can do so by allowing them to take poor quality modules at underfunded, overcrowded FE colleges is completely ridiculous. Even if a working class woman manages to overcome all of the obstacles to pursuing a course - such as the shortage of childcare facilities and cash-- what she is being offered is 'access' to an inferior education.

When I first went to college, a favourite slogan of student politics was 'education for the masses not the bloody ruling classes'. If John Patten succeeds, that demand may have been met - but only by sending 33 per cent of young people to universities with no resources and scarce teaching facilities as an alternative to signing on. This is not access for all; it is access to nothing, no education, no training, no future, a piece of paper called a degree that represents nothing.

Under the banners of access, semesterisation and modularisation, Britain is heading towards an American-style system, where there are a handful of prestigious Ivy League colleges at the top and a great many other colleges teaching rubbish at the bottom. The old system in this country may have been elitist. But at least it gave students something worthwhile in the way of education. What will they get from being granted freer access to a higher education system which is sinking lower all the time?

Additional information from Jim Banks

Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 48, October 1992

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