We're all in this together, but don't breathe a word

26th March 2004 at 00:00
I had lunch the other day with a professor. Well someone has to do these things, and in its own way it is no more socially embarrassing than buying a Big Issue outside Marks and Sparks.

We compared notes and discovered a high degree of correlation. We both had too little time, too much interference, too much emphasis on performance measures, a declining market and, worst of all, students who thought that they had bought a commodity called education.

More surprisingly perhaps, we both shared a belief that what Belloc called the hoary social curse of class still walked the groves of academe.

This encounter led me to muse on the future of post-16 education in Scotland. Why was it that we do nothing to overcome elitism in education? Is it because we all secretly buy into segregation? Why don't we have a plan that foresees the creation of new tertiary lifelong learning institutes where everyone goes to develop in carpentry, astrophysics or whatever?

Why do we still tolerate places where they use titles once popular in 1450 and which exude the unpleasant smell of smug privilege and establishment? Why is it that other countries such as Germany, Norway and Japan understand that a degree in plumbing is as sensible as one in anthropology?

I decided to consult with some of the most influential people in further education and started at the top with the college jannie, or security and facilities superintendent, as he now prefers. "Nae time furrit," he muttered, a touch more succinctly than his new title. Naturally I took this to mean his disapproval of the binary concept.

Next was the principal's PA, a positive fount of all knowledge - apart, of course, from the location of her boss. "Well," she said, "the uni does have a nice campus and a swimming pool, so if we could use that then I'd be all for it. My health and beauty gym membership is sooo expensive."

Finally there was Elsie who is active in the union and even knows what initials they use these days. "We'd have to take over the AUT, of course, since we're the ones with experience of local collective bargaining, and those academic professor types look a soft touch compared to our principal and his capitalist running dogs."

Inspired by this ringing endorsement from all levels of further education, I decided that my vision could now be revealed to a waiting nation.

But before calling the Times Ed Scotland, it seemed a sensible precaution to carry out a further check by talking to someone in the UHI Millennium Institute. After all, if any organisation was living the vision of a new form of learning institution, it had to be the one that dares not speak its name.

My contact made me swear never to reveal his identity, so let's call him the Dean of Highland Philosophy. "The sad truth is that we all signed up to the idea of a new federation but, in our efforts to get properly funded, we have been forced to become more and more like a traditional university. I'm sure that the opposition from the ancient universities has been behind much of this.

"I've seen a recommendation for a new federation of further and higher education in the Manchester area that includes an executive office of seven people. We have 10 times that number in Inverness, and that's a direct result of mimicking a traditional university instead of fighting for our original vision. The likelihood is that we'll end up as a third rank university sitting expensively on top of the partner colleges and institutes."

So I've come to the sad conclusion that my vision is just too far ahead and we'll have to wait until the hoary social curse stinks a trifle less.

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