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There's got to be more to university than bums on seats

Another day, another education story. Selection, literacy and numeracy, A-level football, students' fees and teachers' pay have all recently hit the headlines. The political parties vie with each other to explain how it is they who can increase opportunity, raise standards and improve the country's competitiveness. Yet somehow it does not ring true.

For one thing the money just does not seem to be there. But there is also the overlaying problem of unemployment. Technological advance has meant that there are not enough jobs to go round. Jobs have an importance beyond earning money. They are the glue of society and they confer adult status. Unemployment has been reaching levels where it threatens social cohesion.

One coping strategy has been to expand education and training. (Another has been to encourage early retirement.) The hidden agenda of much educational policymaking seems to have been to occupy as many people for as long as possible at minimum public cost.

Looked at in this way, some otherwise puzzling decisions fall into shape. Take higher education for example. Student numbers have been permitted to rocket beyond the available finance. Both universities and students are impoverished. Averaging costs across a wide range of institutions puts the quality of the best at risk. No longer are they assured of their place in the world premier league.

Why has this been allowed to happen? Because, by and large, a university education was, and perhaps still it, attractive - something people are prepared to volunteer for in preference to seeking a job. But the whole thrust has been bums-on-seats, not the quality of the experience.

It did not have to be this way. Opening up higher education should have been good news all round. Yet neither of the two main political parties has been willing to tell us how it could be paid for. Worse still they are deliberately fudging the issue. Only last week, John Major claimed that since 1990 there has been a 23 per cent increase in university funding whereas, in fact, the amount of public money spent on each student has been cut by more than a quarter. It was not so long ago that Labour sacked Jeff Rooker from his shadow education post when he dared to suggest students might have to contribute.

Another example of the hidden agenda is the mess that is currently vocational education. National vocational qualifications, both general and occupationally-specific, are rum concoctions. But lacking, as they do, both training requirements and performance tests, they are the perfect way of occupying time without anyone being able to tell what it is that the students or trainees are supposed to be doing or achieving. If the real intention had been to enable people to improve their skills, knowledge and understanding, then there would have been independent testing to ensure that the intended standards were being reached. But tests were rejected in the mistaken belief that they would put people off (and hence fail to occupy time) - and also cost money.

Historically, the school-leaving age in this country has tended to be raised more in response to unemployment than for purely educational reasons.

Indeed, compulsory education came into being partly because so many young people were making a nuisance of themselves on street corners. Raising the school-leaving age de facto to 18, widely supported on the Left and underpinned by the optimistic National Education and Training Targets, can be seen as a continuation of that process.

But while the Government appears to have accepted the aspiration of high educational achievement, it has not willed the means. The further education sector has been under pressure to expand by yet another 25 per cent, on top of its recent doubling in size, largely through "efficiency gains". Last year's teachers' pay award was only partly met, with a consequential loss of posts, and the Government is reported to be looking for ways round this year's recommended increase, in spite of the obvious need to retain and attract high quality staff.

As far as education and training is concerned, participation seems to be everything. Even A-levels are not immune. Odd new subjects like sports studies have emerged, and the general standard has been questioned. Never mind the quality, feel the width.

But soaking up unemployment in this way can only be a short-term palliative. The people parked in education will soon come looking for jobs. Moreover, the longer they have spent in preparing for work, the higher will be their expectations. Not only is empty expansion a recipe for discontent, it also misses a marvellous opportunity.

Improved technology which takes so much of the occupational grind out of everyday living is not a threat, but a benefit. It frees up the time for the good things in life, including education. Extra time in education will however only be an advantage if it can be spent wisely.

We must secure ways of allowing people genuinely to develop their talents and interests. We must have regard to the quality of the experience.

And we must also know where the money is going to come from - whether it be the taxpayer, students, parents, employers, or some other source. That is the path to soundly-based opportunity and economic success.

As it is, much of what passes for educational policy - both Conservative and Labour (the Liberal Democrats are at least honest about raising taxes) - is driven by the twin needs of occupying time and reducing costs.

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