Amid high hopes for a brighter future lies a shattered dream

29th August 1997 at 01:00
A new session. The lift has perfected its interesting rumbles and the trip to the ninth floor takes as long as ever. But as the doors yawn open on newly-painted corridor walls the sharp, fresh smell serves as a sudden reminder that nothing ever stays the same in further education. A friend once admitted his ambition was to be bored. At this moment in the world of FE, that ambition has a seductive attraction.

Trying it out, I sit at my desk and contemplate the session ahead. Boredom. I key the word in to the computer and ask the thesaurus to check it. Astonishingly it bristles and tells me it can't find the word, that it's possibly misspelled and that the word I'm looking for is probably "borderlands".

Boredom's not a word that's recognised in the world of FE, you see. Change. Now there's a word we understand. Just before the break, the word on everyone's lips was "nightmare". This word, accompanied by a rolling of eyes and a tilting of the head heavenwards, signifies that change is happening too fast even for us.

But we lecturers counsel ourselves wisely. Basically, we tell ourselves (and "basically" is another desperate word) things don't change. We welcome our students in, and usher them out at the end of the session with their awards. It's what we've always done and will continue to do even though the world as we know it may seem to be continually crashing round our ears. We try to be philosophical. Plus ca change, we mutter as we pass knots of staff rolling their eyes and tilting their heads heavenwards. But the reality is that since Dearing and Garrick there are big changes and boredom isn't an option.

By afternoon former students Peter and Dawn had appeared for a chat. A married couple with two children, they had enrolled on full-time courses when the factory they'd worked in closed down. Peter was one of my students. he was bewitched by college, by this second chance, by the opportunities afforded him. He planned to go on to take a degree.

Then, at the beginning of his second year, he hit a low point, his work flagged and he thought about giving up. His worries were the three predictable ones.

Money, money and, of course, money. Dawn wasn't in any of my classes, but I could guess she was under pressure, too. After a precarious first block that second year, they held out and finished their courses.

Now they held hands and grinned at me, still basking in a sense of achievement, still confident that the right job would come along for them both. "We'll move anywhere," Dawn said. "We'll find something." They confessed to the relief of having some of the pressure lifted from them. "I still can't believe I can come into the house at night and switch on the telly, or just have a chat with Dawn," Peter said. "Usually it's chores, kids, sandwich and then the two of us get the books open."

They called in because they were at a loose end, perhaps, or because they were experiencing withdrawal symptoms, or maybe because they liked college and what it had done for them. Whichever, they will be superb ambassadors for FE.

In the wake of the DearingGarrick recommendations, assurances have been given that students from low income families won't have to pay back tuition fees. Would that have given someone like Peter the confidence to take up his university place? Would things have been easier for them under the new loans scheme? Would they have been able to stop juggling part-time work and study? I know how Peter would see it. Debt, he called it.

As I drove home, a voice on my car radio said that if people couldn't see the value of taking out a loan to pay for a decent education then it was probably wasted on them anyway. There's been much talk like that bandied about recently, mostly by people who have benefited from free degrees.

Many of our students are the first in their families to enter further education. It's a big step and confidence and assurance are built up along the way. These are the people who are going to be deterred from pursuing their education not because they "can't see the value" of a loan but because, like Peter, they see the financial burden as too overwhelming and the future as too precarious.

There are always those who are born with a silver spoon in their mouth. John attended a private school, went on to do a funded five year degree course, and was offered a job immediately after finals with the sweetener "come and work with us and we'll pay off your student loan". Life's not like that for Peter or for most of our students. The new proposals threaten to exacerbate the gulf between those who can afford an education and those who can't, and students who come up through further education. are particularly vulnerable.

In Dundee, the number of students entering higher education is below the national average and in comparison with other cities, more of them come from households where there has been no previous experience of further education. So there are more Peters than Johns in our college and in our city's universities.

Peter, we are told, is exactly the kind of person we need to encourage as we widen access and opportunity. But this summer, Peter's given up his dream of a degree and is looking for a job.

The changes ahead promise a bright future for further education. and a more prominent role in widening access. I can guarantee that I, with two degrees funded by the state, won't be the least bit bored. Such a pity about Peter, though, isn't it? Obviously just can't see the value of paying for his education.

Dr Carol Gow is a lecturer in mediacommunication at Dundee College

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