The driving up of tuition fees is not a cure. It is a symptom of the general failings over the last 60 years in educational provision. Throughout that time, Left-wing thinkers have controlled the arguments in education and have maintained a single underlying principle. This is that all students, irrespective of background, interest or ability, must get exactly the same provision and all do as well as each other. In other words, the equality of comprehensive education for all. No-one can be left behind, ignored or made different. All students are equal.
How to achieve that? The first step is to ensure that every student is studying the same things in every school. So a National Curriculum was brought in and steadily extended, while the school leaving age was pushed up. This meant testing the students to ensure that the teachers stuck to the same syllabus for all. But some students did worse than others! A disaster to the comprehensive ideal – after all, it undermined the idea that all students were the same. So grade inflation began, with results pushed higher and higher, so that no one should fail. Once this was achieved, through comprehensive schools and the near-universal GCSE pass, the comprehensivising Left looked at Higher Education. Some students got this and some not.
Surely that was unfair? All students were equal, weren’t they? And everyone should be able to have exactly the same education as their peers? So the comprehensivising Left began the crusade to make all students equal at Higher Education too. This meant making institutions equal – out went the technology colleges and polytechnics, and every institution became a university. Grade inflation was masking the differences between student performance, so now university offers could be made to almost anyone. The numbers flooding in went up and up.
But this created a new problem, not unusual with a Left-wing administration – spiralling cost. As ever, the answer has been to increase tax raising, hence the introduction (and steady increase) of tuition fees, effectively a tax on students. Where is this going? Unless the course changes, the principle must ultimately mean further grade inflation, less choice in schools and the educational leaving age pushed up to 21. And tuition fees continuing to rise.
Now for a dose of reality and some really startling news. People are not all the same. Some students like academic subjects and will quite happily keep their head in a text book all their life. Other students are more interested in people than theories and want to pursue a career in pastoral care or service. Some students prefer running about outside and want to be professional sportsmen. Others don’t really have high ambitions in their career but want to concentrate on family, friends and fun. And perhaps that’s okay. Perhaps that’s just how the world works. Perhaps our system of education should be designed to reflect this.
How about starting in schools with the principle that everyone is different, that they know what they want to study and they know what they want to achieve in life. What about a system of education that acts as a servant to students’ ambition, rather than controlling their every step? You want to drop Maths and study Drama? Go ahead. You want to spend more time on motor mechanics and less on History? No problem. You want to do Maths, Extra Maths, Physics and some more Maths so you can become an Accountant? I won’t sneer at you.
The grades could reflect how good people actually are, which means some people could pass and some could fail. This could reflect the ways in which people are different. Physics teachers could concentrate on teaching Physicists, rather than everyone and there might be enough to go round. People who want to leave education and start work could do so. Institutions could specialise in what they provide. And rather than arguing that all bankers must be happy and all bricklayers unhappy, perhaps we could accept that people might be generally happy if their own unique interests and abilities become fulfilled.
Some people argue that this course would lead to chaos. They say “the country needs certain skills and education must ensure that all students have them”. Well the reality is that education isn’t providing those employment skills. Employers say so – they say that they have to teach basic numeracy and literacy even to graduates. And we can’t control where the country will be in thirty or forty years time – that is in the hands of the generation now at school.
My guess is that, given the choice, some of them will still want to become lawyers, accountants and businessmen. Some will still want to become plumbers, bricklayers, actors or sportsmen too. Give them the choice of how their education develops and I believe they will make the right decisions for themselves. I suspect a lot less of them will want to go to university too, if we stop pushing it down their throats. Not only would this approach reduce the costs throughout education (including reducing the need for tuition fees), we might find that there is more than one meaning to the phrase “a free education for all”.