Robert Halfon is MP for Harlow, a former Conservative Party Deputy Chairman, Chair of the Education Select Committee and President of Conservative Workers and Trade Unionists.
Imagine being at a dinner and asking: What is the most remarkable higher educational institution in the country? Some might answer Oxford or Cambridge; others could mention other famous Russell Group Universities.
The response would probably sum up much of what is wrong with our higher education system today; the ancient, the well-known and, yes, the privileged universities get more recognition than other bodies doing quite extraordinary things. Maybe it’s no wonder their reputations are sky-high when most of their customers are relatively comfortable or from the aspirational middle classes, and they can engender multi-million pound donations from the Government in research funds or from national and international wealthy philanthropists.
Now, to reassure Conservative Home readers, I recognise the value that Oxbridge and similar universities bring to our education system and the reputation of Britain, and the wealth that they draw to our country. I also think that it is a most wonderful thing for anyone to get into such a university (when it is based on merit and clearly deserved).
It would, of course, be much better if these universities ensured equal opportunity for those from disadvantaged backgrounds, and if they opened up to skills, degree apprenticeships and technical education. (I must note here that whilst Oxford has closed its eyes and ears to apprenticeships – too grand for that kind of thing – Cambridge has just announced a degree apprenticeship programme).
Where we get things badly wrong is how we think of elite institutions – those considered to be the best. Higher education is meant to have four purposes; education, providing a ladder of opportunity to the disadvantaged, skills and employability.
What is the point of university if the disadvantaged do not have equal access or great employment destinations? What is the objective of higher education if it does not play a major role in addressing our country’s ever-deepening skills deficit? (This is especially significant in light of the oncoming march of the robots, where automation and artificial intelligence will take millions of jobs from working class and middle class alike).
Perhaps one of the great education reforms of the twentieth century, the Open University represented the democratisation of higher education, ensuring that the many could benefit alongside the few. It also provides a real ladder of opportunity in terms of social justice. Not only do one in 12 of all first year undergraduate students come from poorer areas, but 55 percent of students are from disadvantaged backgrounds and 24,000 students with disabilities are enrolled at the OU. Remarkably, it also provides a higher education haven to 2,000 armed forces personnel, and has a disabled Veterans Scholarship fund.
The genius of the OU is that, through flexible learning and no A-Level requirement, it allows millions of mature students – some in work (currently 76 per cent) and some families, including single parents – to climb that ladder of opportunity to the top, and to get the jobs, security and prosperity they need for themselves and their families. Embracing the apprenticeship revolution, the OU offers degree apprenticeships and has the ambition of being the top degree epprenticeship provider in the country, ensuring that these students will have no debt, earn while they learn and get a high quality skilled job at the end.
Despite all that the OU is doing, it faces real financial difficulties. Whilst the wealthier Russell Group Universities have plenty of cash from student loans and research grants and spend money on buildings (and hefty Vice Chancellor salaries), the OU has had to close buildings and cut its staff and some courses. This has resulted in part from the huge drop in part-time learners – but also from the loss of some direct Government funding.
It seems astonishing that the OU should have to face these kind of disadvantages from public funding when it does so much for the disadvantaged in our society. That is why the Department for Education needs to introduce accelerated degrees and subsidies to part-time students (through loans, the Access agreement or both) as a way of stopping the deep decline in their numbers. They also should allow adult students to transfer course credits to whichever learning institution they choose to attend or have attended.
Above all, the Prime Minister’s higher education review should ensure that we turn the looking glass of higher education the other way round. At a time when the total number of English undergraduate entrants from disadvantaged areas has fallen by 17 per cent and the number of state school entrants has remained static (with some Russell Group Universities even seeing a decline in comprehensive- educated pupils), perhaps we should regard universities as elite only if they are providing a real ladder of opportunity to the disadvantaged. Maybe universities should only be seen as ‘the best’ when they lead their students to well paid job destinations and reduce Britain’s skills deficit.
A Government and society that values institutions like Open University as much as Oxbridge, and treats them accordingly, is a country that really means social justice in education.