We live in worrying times, don’t we? We test our children remorselessly and from an inappropriately early age because we are worried their performance is falling behind international standards. We send them to school earlier and press them harder than do most comparable countries; we also invest significantly less than most of them, citing our worries about money and the escalating debt. We continually reform our national skills strategy because we worry our skills system is less than ‘world class’ and our economy is becoming uncompetitive, putting huge pressure on further education to adapt and deliver on reduced budgets and under constant threat of a clobbering from our oppressive accountability system. And young people accept the reality of huge post-graduation debts because they fear the even greater costs of failing and slipping down the ladder. Wealthy parents spend a fortune gaming the system because they too are beset by the fear of downward social mobility – a grave risk indeed in our appallingly unequal society.
For very many of us, anxiety is the governing principle of our lives. Young people are wracked with anxiety about how they will ever be in a position to buy a house while those who do own their own homes are often weighed down by huge debts, unable to save or to think about retirement and forced, in many cases, to take on multiple jobs just to stay afloat. In some ways, I think Theresa May, in the brief honeymoon period of her dismal premiership, was right to highlight the plight of those ‘just struggling’ to get by. There are very many people out there who are stretching themselves to breaking point to do no more than simply exist. Where Mrs May was wrong, of course, was in thinking that she and her party were the solution to the problem rather than one of its foremost drivers.
It was, after all, her predecessor in power (another child of privilege so unacquainted with failure he couldn’t imagine it happening to him) who so successfully closed down debate about how much we should spend on public services by promoting the idea that overspending on things like health and education caused the financial crisis (and that another was looming – you know, like Greece – should we even think about spending as much on our children’s education as the Germans or the French spend on theirs). And it is her party that has ratcheted up the testing regime in schools, introduced more selection into schools (bad news and another cause of anxiety unless you can afford to rig the system and of course it is a system designed to be rigged), and made education dizzyingly expensive in a way that we are encouraged to think is financially necessary but which, in fact, is out of kilter with the cost of education in all comparable countries.
And somehow, in the midst all of this, we have voted repeatedly to be governed by those with least comprehension of the day-to-day toll of our anxiety-laden lives; a party of privilege and inherited wealth many senior members of which actively despise those at the bottom of the pile and have never experienced the worry of not knowing where the next meal is coming from or how they will afford a new pair of shoes or school uniform for their kids. Theirs is a different world of trust funds, debt-free liberal education, expensive internships, closed networks, risk-free investment and endless opportunities.
Doubtless they believe these opportunities should be available for them and their children – who wouldn’t – but it is equally clear that they do not want them to be available to us or our children. This is clearer nowhere else than in education. Building on the work of the last Labour government, which introduced and increased tuition fees, narrowed the further education curriculum and limited funding for part-time higher education, the governments of Cameron and May have overseen an enhanced vocationalism in FE and skills, cultivated a greater focus on selection (‘choice’) while reducing the overall budget for state-maintained schools, and created a hugely expensive two-tier system of higher education with elite universities, which offer a traditional liberal arts curriculum, dominated by young people who attended expensive private schools, while the rest, driven in part by anxiety about the career risks of non-vocational study, largely go to less prestigious institutions which offer more practical courses related to a job or vocation.
At the same time as countries such as China and Singapore began investing heavily in lifelong learning, recognizing the critical importance of skills renewal among the adult population and the need for education to prepare people not just for a job but for a life, the UK government, set on reducing the size of the state by any means and at any cost, took a wrecking ball to its own once enviably advanced lifelong learning system. The number of part-time students in higher education has fallen for seven consecutive years; last year alone by eight per cent – an overall decline of 61 per cent since 2010, when the coalition government introduced its funding reforms. The vast majority of part-time students, of course, are mature, adults who are already in the workforce who are combining higher study with a job, a family and other financial commitments.
Unsurprisingly, in this era of escalating anxiety, it is those with the most commitments, financial and otherwise, who have found themselves most excluded by the fees hike and the introduction of loans (this seems to have come as a surprise to the architects of the scheme though it was highlighted as a likely consequence, by NIACE and others, as early as 2010). As most part-time mature students tend also to come from less well-off, non-traditional backgrounds, this decline has also had a – largely unreported – impact on the social mix of our universities and on efforts to widen participation. As Claire Callender writes, the fall ‘has been greatest among older students, those wanting to do “bite size” courses, and those with low-level entry qualifications – all typically “widening participation” candidates.’
This shocking decline has caused barely a wrinkle in the brows of successive universities ministers. The present one, Jo Johnson (another politician who has had to claw his way to the top) has done little to suggest he considers the collapse of part-time higher education to be anything more than a minor inconvenience; regrettable, for sure, but a price worth paying to maintain the integrity of our costly and evidently failing higher education funding system. The line seems to be to stress the system’s relative success in increasing the numbers of young people from less-advantaged backgrounds (though the ‘top’ universities remain stubbornly resistant to change, continuing to act as finishing schools for the children of the very wealthy). Of course, this would look like less like success if part-time students were included in the same calculation – and it starts to look like serious failure if we also consider the institutions to which ‘widening participation’ candidates tend to gravitate.
The picture is no rosier in further education, where the government has savagely reduced the adult education budget to the point where usually conservative commentators were warning of its complete disappearance by 2020. Since then the government has attempted to restore some stability to the budget, but the cuts have been eye-watering, limiting the breadth and quantity of opportunity for older learners. In 2016-16 alone 24 per cent of the budget was cut, on top of year-on-year cuts amounting to 35 per cent of the total adult skills budget between 2009 and 2015. The range of provision on offer has narrowed too, reflecting largely discredited government choices about the skills that are economically useful, but also, I suspect, the tendency of people, driven by anxiety, to opt for courses they think will have a direct economic pay-off. Of course, this approach neglected – and continues to neglect – the importance of a range of other crucial skills, which are important in the workplace and in life more generally, such as resilience, creativity, problem-solving and, perhaps most importantly of all, a love of learning. As this year’s OECD Skills Outlook report suggested, the neglect of such skills makes little economic sense and is almost certainly harmful to productivity, where the UK traditionally performs extremely poorly.
Of course, the anxiety which drives people away from education and into compromised choices which do little justice to their real talents and aspirations, is part of a wider anxiety, fed by cuts to public services, rising household debt, growing inequality, pay restraint, insecure work and rising costs of living. For too long, the question of how much we should spend and on what has been off the agenda, as though we were too impoverished a nation to make serious choices about the kind of society we want to belong to. This year’s general election appears to have opened debate a little wider, though it takes place in the face of bitter resistance from the mainstream media and those who control it (who, by and large, whatever their populist pretentions, are rather happy with a status quo that privileges them and stifles the vast majority). My hope is that we can have a serious national conversation about tax and public spending in spite of this.
An Oxfam inequality index ranked the UK 109th in the world for the proportion of its budget it spends on education – behind the likes of Kazakhstan and Cambodia (no disrespect intended to those nations but the UK is evidently a significantly wealthier country with very well-established education institutions and a well-documented need to increase both its productivity and the basic skills of its population). Oxfam’s report also noted that tuition fees in the UK are the highest in the industrialised world, with the burden of student debt disproportionally borne by poorer students. It noted too that UK corporation tax has been cut further and faster than in most other rich countries, ranking the UK’s tax system 96th in terms of commitment to reduce inequality.
The government has approached Brexit without a plan – even for the Brexit negotiations themselves. Sabre-rattling and political posturing are, it turns out, no preparation for lengthy, complex and highly detailed negotiations across a huge array of topics. Little wonder EU counterparts are privately talking with thinly veiled contempt about David Davis and his team. But the government has let us down in a more profound way. It has purposefully stifled debate about the sort of society we can be, while effecting to have no choice about deliberate and ideologically driven decisions about funding which have had a calamitous impact on people’s lives. In doing so, it has denied hope of change or a better life to many thousands of people.