When the norm should no longer be the norm

11th July 1997 at 01:00
This is my final column, at least as a monthly regular. I can't claim to have had any grand plan when I started writing it. On some occasions, the choice of topic has been opportunistic, reflecting a book read or a current report, and it has been simply a chance to develop a point in print. But looking back at the 30-odd pieces, several recurring themes emerge, and variants on these could be taken as a wish list for Dearing.

So here is what I hope Sir Ron's report will move us towards: First, we need a real push towards rethinking the balance between initial and continuing education. Straightforward expansion of higher education in its current shape is not the way forward. On the other hand, simply capping numbers is not the answer either; the demand is there, and should not be discouraged. More people will want more education; the question is, under what conditions?

What we need is a set of measures that encourage real choice by individuals about when they will enter higher education. It is hard to make this sound more than a platitude. But if it is taken seriously, it means that many more people will actively opt (with encouragement) not to proceed directly from school to a degree as the norm.

This means biasing the system in favour of shorter initial awards - diplomas and the like - and of course widening further the return routes. Incidentally, this becomes far more possible now that at last the youth labour market is beginning to tighten.

Second, we must lay to rest the distinction between full-time and part-time students. This could be done covertly and de facto by removing the discrimination in fee payments, but I hope that something more positive will be said to signal the end of the full-time student as the norm. For me, this will be the acid test of what is certain to be one of the most strenuously scrutinised aspects of the report - student finance.

Third, there must be recognition of the key role of further education in post-secondary and lifelong learning. Helena Kennedy's report on widening access has preceded Sir Ron's and gives this line of argument a major push, but the success of her recommendations will be enormously enhanced if Dearing's go along the same line. There is talk of Peters and Pauls, and I would not wish to see higher education starved, but Dearing falls squarely into the world of politics, which means the language of priorities must be spoken.

Fourth, we need a genuine commitment to enabling those who work in education to develop and learn in all kinds of new ways. As a huge business, education probably spends well below the average on research and development, and on staff development. Those academics who still have the right to sabbaticals quite rightly guard them jealously, but I am talking about broader forms of development.

How are we to acquire a proper awareness of the knowledge-creating strengths of other sectors if there are not more opportunities to spend time in them? Whatever is or is not done about pay, can academic and other staff be made to feel properly valued as members of learning organisations? Courses and secondments are part of the answer, but how about some serious experimentation with leave schemes which allow established staff to go part-time for a while?

But let me sign off with a rather different kind of thought. One of the most encouraging aspects of the Labour Government's verbal performance to date has been the willingness to introduce ethical issues into its business. This has been most notable in foreign policy, even if it has yet to be tested in any serious way. I don't think it is any longer naive to see an enhanced role for ethics in business and investment. So if there is a renewal of ethical thinking in the professional sphere, how might education help us to keep up with the times? I leave you with the question.

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