The Executive Suite tendency

Corralling the young into vocational factory farms or apprenticeships splits further the educated elite from those who service it.

In the fuzzy language of options and alternatives, a class war is being waged.

Complete with the rhetoric of increased social mobility, a political offensive from above threatens to change the social landscape of Britain for the worse. Its visible targets are welfare, jobs and wages, but behind these selective ‘austerities’ a more insidious form of social engineering is also taking place. If the assault on universities and the thousands who aspire to higher education succeeds, Britain is in danger of reversing decades of gain to become a nation further divided between those with privileged access to university education and those denied it.

Already, tens of thousands of students with good A-levels find themselves scrounging for alternatives to hoped-for university places. A disproportionate number come from comprehensive schools and economically weaker backgrounds. The severe admissions crunch caused by punishing cuts has been worsened by a near halving of clearing places to 18,000 from 32,000. Anticipated further cuts of to the higher education budget over the next four years will greatly worsen the situation. By contrast, record increases in applications in recent years demonstrate a widening desire for higher learning and all that it promises in personal and professional terms.

The coalition government’s response to this paradoxical situation is breezy condescension masked as hard-headed practicality.

‘Let them have apprenticeships!’ pronounce the universities minister, David Willetts, and the business secretary, Vince Cable, from the safe heights enabled by their own university educations.

Beating that tired political drum – more vocational training – Cable touts skills that ‘enable people to be productive in creating high-value goods and services’ as a replacement for university education. His vocabulary exemplifies what the late Jimmy Reid, in a 1972 University of Glasgow rectorial address, described as the executive-suite tendency ‘to see people as units of production, as indices in your accountants’ books’.

Quite apart from the ongoing bureaucratic failure story that is vocational training, we must question the ethics of stratifying society in this way. The already advantaged will be able to afford and profit from higher education; the poorer must train in lower paid skills to service the former’s lifestyles.The claim that a university education is not for all embodies what the educationist Jonathan Kozol calls ‘fear of equalising’. There are sound economic reasons to get a degree. Universities still control access to nearly all the major professions, from law, engineering and medicine to journalism, finance and teaching. The earnings gap between the university-educated and those with vocational qualifications remains consistently large in favour of the former.

But the more fundamental fact remains that real democracy and a truly integrated society require citizens who have had the chance to develop skills such as independent inquiry and critical thinking, neither of which need mean devaluing other skills. Despite their own increasing corporatisation, universities still provide an environment that expands our capacity to think and engage creatively with other people’s ideas. Of course, informed, sceptical and independent-minded citizens don’t make ideal subjects for an increasingly plutocratic governing class.

Unsurprisingly, the vacuum created by slashing publicly funded university places has immediately lured profiteering transnational companies offering degrees at designer price tags of nearly ¬£10,000 a year. They include BPP, the first private institution since the Thatcher era and only the second ever to be granted university status. Hailing the entry of US-based testing corporation Kaplan into the market as ‘the first glimmerings of the opening of universities to supply-side reform’, Willetts makes the old mistake of confusing human needs with market demand. Higher education, a shared resource, which ought to be available to all who seek it, has become yet another social responsibility outsourced towards private sector profit. In the process, it will spiral out of the financial reach of the vast majority of young people, again turning universities into the hereditary domain of the financially advantaged.

Nick Clegg conceded recently that ‘for too many, birth and destiny are closely intertwined’ turning inequality into full-fledged ‘social segregation’. Yet nothing this coalition has done so far evinces a desire to change anything. On the contrary, restricting access to higher education, in conjunction with vicious attacks on the support base of schools, wages and housing, only accelerates the drive towards absolute economic segregation.A mature democracy thrives by widening access to higher education. Corralling young people into vocational factory farms does not equal progress. Life is not a television show where gruff millionaires airily dismiss formal education and magically transform eager young things into corporate high-flyers.

What is masquerading as the good old-fashioned common sense of apprenticeships and skills over higher education is really the politics of dismissing the intelligence and abilities of ordinary people. We must fight hard to retain common ownership of education and have a real discussion about the role we want it to play in our lives and society.

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