More for the many does not mean less for the others

28th November 1997 at 00:00
George Walden was widely respected during his brief time as minister with responsibility for adult education. He was bright, quick, rational and sceptical - fair but challenging. Since then, I have been impressed with his independence of judgment, though of course, there is much of what he thinks that I don't agree with.

I was, however, astonished by the vehemence of his attack on Baroness Blackstone, the education minister, in the Evening Standard. I cannot remember such passion and intemperance since Norman Tebbit's attack on the Inner London Education Authority.

Her crime according to Walden is to be a closet egalitarian from the 1970s. He is afraid she may deny Oxford and Cambridge colleges their additional money for one-to-one teaching tutorials. The article, like the debate in the Lords that preceded it, gave me pause. Why are academics and writers so fierce in the fight to protect flagrant privilege? The spectre of "dumbing down", of diminishing standards and the ignorant hordes at the gate of the citadels of learning have echoed from Eliot and Pound's defence of literature to the current conviction of the Institute of Directors that Britain does not need any more graduates.

The same sort of attitude was echoed, with a difference, in the work of the Dearing Committee on Higher Education. It commissioned a wide range of support studies, and on the basis of the findings commissioned the consultants London Economics to model alternative options for the development of the system. The studies make weighty reading, but the devil is in the detail.

Dr Claire Callender, of the Policy Studies Unit, in her remit to review the participation of part-time students was told to exclude the Open University, the most important centre of part-time study in the country. As a result she found that most part-time students got help, either with fees or time off to study. The findings unsurprisingly concluded that to treat part-time students on the same basis as full-time students, in relation to fees, grants and loans, would prove astronomically expensive. Sir Ron wanted to do nothing to diminish the incentive for employers to support part-time students, so decided that it was best to leave well alone.

One of the wonders of open government is that these assumptions can be teased out and tested. The Open University did just that, as did the National Advisory Group on Continuing Education and Lifelong Learning. The results of the re-analysis done for the Open University by London Economics are now published. They conclude that "extending loans to part-time degree and sub-degree level students would cost the Government an extra 0.5 per cent per annum in the short term and 1.5 per cent per annum in the long term". This is on the basis that loans of up to half the sum available to full-time students could be made to part-timers on incomes of up to Pounds 10,000. Up to Pounds 16,000 would cost an extra 0.7 per on the current scheme.

These sums are hardly revolutionary, and at the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education we hoped, and still hope, that they would seem achievable to a government committed to education for the many. Yet I think we have under-estimated the size of the task. The people who want more learning opportunities for the third of people who have never had them do not want a weakening of higher education - it is just that the current arrangements make nothing at all available for so many people.

But to be visible in the debate you must secure a voice and, as the Lords debate shows, Oxbridge has advocates aplenty. Older people wanting to study could have done with a fraction of such support when Dearing was at work. People over 50 have been denied the opportunity to take out student loans since they were introduced in 1989. Dearing never in all the hundreds of pages of study noticed them - even though our ageing society will mean expanding numbers of third-age learners on the campuses.

One effect of the clamour about the old universities is that it may prove harder to confront the tough choices that face us all. To limit the public investment in one institution or another is not a catastrophe, if others will pick up the tab. That is, after all, the essence of the cross-party affection for public-private partnerships.

So, on the day Bob Fryer's White Paper on lifelong learning is published, with its call for education for citizenship, I want to see an education debate in which the learning needs of all citizens get recognised, where Baroness Blackstone and her colleagues weigh the proper needs of people getting to the starting line alongside the legitimate case for investing in universities.

I have confidence in the strength of the argument to be made for fair treatment. Surely we can hope to see, in the lifetime of a Parliament, equal treatment for part- and full-time students, and an end to discrimination by mode of study. And then, as we prepare for 1999's International Year of the Older Person perhaps we can make a start to polish off ageism too.

Alan Tuckett is director of the National Institute for Adult Continuing Education.

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