Another view - Come the revolution, it'll be skirmishes at dawn

Stephen Jones

With impeccable timing, Reform, the think tank, has come up with a free market solution to Britain's chronic skills shortage. Essentially it is calling for a revolution in further and higher education funding.

What they propose is to take the Pounds 10 billion or so spent on FE and HE and thrust it into the hot little hands of students. When they reach 18, each would be given an individual education account, topped up with Pounds 13,000 of taxpayers' money. This could then be spent on whatever education or training takes their fancy.

Clearly, Reform is hoping to do for the UK education and training system what the free market in banking has done for the world economy. Educession - educational recession - will become the new buzzword. Training schemes will founder on the sharp rocks of competition. Colleges will go to the wall. University dons will line the steps of their boarded up universities, with a tin cup on one side and a pooch on a string on the other.

But hold on. It won't be all bad. Out of catastrophe a consumer-led order will rise phoenix-like from the ashes. Reform's new education and training providers will be leaner and fitter than those of the old order. The divide between the academic and the vocational will vanish. Social mobility will be reignited. No longer will the best opportunities be monopolised by the well off.

Colleges will be set free, their only imperative to provide courses that are attractive to the new breed of educational consumers. As Reform puts it: "Individuals would enjoy the same level of information about education and training as restaurant-goers and car purchasers." Fees, salaries, curriculum would all be open house. The market and the market alone would decide.

Well, that's the theory. As with most things, there is an alternative scenario. For a start, how wisely will all those 18-year-olds spend their new-found wealth? Being 18 and having Pounds 13,000 to spend isn't necessarily the best of combinations. I have met plenty of sensible 18-year-olds. But I've also met many others whose idea of economy follows the model of a drunken sailor on shore leave in a strange port. And you can be sure that just as seagulls follow a trawler, so our new consumers of learning will be courted by that merry band of chancers, dodgy dealers and wide boys otherwise known as educational entrepreneurs.

You can't help but notice also how close the term "individual educational account" is to the ill-fated "individual learning accounts" that briefly saw the light of day in the early years of the century. Thousands were opened in false names, and all sorts of questionable people claimed to be providing learning that turned out to be worthless. The Government pulled the plug after little more than a year of operation. No one knows exactly how much was plundered in that short time, but estimates of the fraud involved range up to Pounds 100 million.

And quite how changing the basis of funding would alter the pattern of many lifetimes and bridge the "esteem gap" between academic and vocational is hard to see.

Reform says: "Other business sectors would follow the example of law, accountancy and medicine and create world-leading professional qualifications. For example, the Chartered Institute of Plumbing would seek statutory approval and set a standard for high-quality plumbing apprenticeships and qualifications." Does it really think that this would somehow, miraculously, give plumbers the status of doctors and lawyers?

You can't help but be sceptical too about the claims that education accounts would ensure that "the best education and training opportunities would no longer be monopolised by people from advantaged backgrounds". With a free-for-all on fees, you can be sure that the "top" universities would charge what they could get - in other words, a lot! While students at the bottom of the social and financial heap might be given bursaries, how would that vast constituency in the middle be able to afford what at the moment - with fees capped at around Pounds 3,000 a year - they get as a right?

Where the real fun would surely start, though, would be over lecturers' conditions of service. At least, it would be fun for the employers. They could finally solve their "inflexibility of labour" problems at a stroke. Freed from the tyranny of union recognition and national negotiations, they could pay what they chose. And, as they would never know from one year to the next how many educational consumers would be turning up on their doorsteps, security of tenure too would be a thing of the past.

Advertisements for vice-principals would no longer call for "five years' experience of curriculum innovation at the highest level". Instead they would read that "two years as an agricultural gang master on the fens of Lincolnshire would be an advantage".

Picture the scene. As dawn breaks on the mean streets, hundreds of down- at-heel hopefuls gather on open ground near colleges, hoping for a position as a "day lecturer". Down the street cruises the pick-up truck of the new lean and efficient education provider, the gimlet-eyed vice- principal at the wheel.

As he pulls up at the kerb, the mob surges forward, all pushing and shoving to get to the front. "Take me, take me," they call out.

"All right, you lot," shouts the VP, clipboard in hand, "Listen up. I need 10 hairdressers, eight chefs, five biologists, three brickies and a lawyer - sorry, make that a plumber. Oh, and I'm looking for a token psychologist today as well. The childcare group say they'd like a bit of theory."

As the lucky few climb on to the truck, the VP shoos away the rabble of English and maths teachers still vying for his attention. "I've told you losers before. Kids don't want that literacy and numeracy crap any more. That's what they left school to get away from in the first place."

With resignation, the "losers" gather up their whiteboard markers and the other tools of their trade, and watch as the truck pulls away. The free market has given them their freedom again - until tomorrow at least.

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Stephen Jones

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