Full Marx, UCU, but sector must be practical

22nd January 2010 at 00:00
Comment: Alan Thomson

For a short time after the near collapse of the global banking system last year, Karl Marx was apparently flying off bookshelves. One imagined the bourgeoisie smuggling copies of The Communist Manifesto and Das Kapital back to suburbia and getting warm and fuzzy as they reacquainted themselves with terms like "surplus value" and "division of labour", taking them back to their radical phase at college.

For many, reading the University and College Union's (UCU) manifesto for post-16 education (page 1) will induce similar feelings; like Marx but - lest the policy chiefs at UCU get too big-headed - on a completely different scale. It will lead to lots of nodding heads as it spells out what is wrong with further and higher education currently while painting a vision of utopia realised through education.

It will come across as comforting in these uncertain times. Again like Marx, and religion for that matter, there probably won't be much to disagree with in terms of the fundamental message which is basically, "please share and play nicely children".

The trouble is, collectivism is a bugger to apply effectively to anything bigger than a community allotment project, and observing the Sabbath is all very well until you realise you forgot to buy milk. It is a complicated and ever-changing world and analyses of the past, or even the present, are rarely reliable blueprints for the future.

That said, the UCU document deserves serious attention. There are many sensible proposals in there, like parity of status between FE and school teachers, an end to stop-start funding, reductions in bureacracy and local partnerships to support adult learning. Yet the manifesto is more than that.

Amid the enterprise and commerce that drive today's FE system, it is a reminder - should we need it - that the bottom line for education remains people not profit. In the words of the UCU, education must be protected from the "depredations" of "inappropriate" market philosophies.

However, aside from the fact our idea of "inappropriate" is apt to change quicker than Lady Gaga's outfits, governments will continue to set their priorities. For instance, the present administration has decided that Type 45 destroyers are more important than adult education. We may be grateful for these new warships one day. Who knows? But in the meantime FE and HE must deploy realpolitik to survive the here and now.

Alan Thomson, Editor, FE Focus? E: alan.thomson@tsleducation.com.

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