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'The time has come for politicians to grasp the nettle on student finance'


Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union, writes:

The University and College Union is today launching its pre-election manifesto. The 15-point document sets out a range of proposals, covering funding, curriculum reform, apprenticeships, accountability and the problem with casual contracts.

We’re launching it today because I’m chairing an event with the Knowledge Economy campaign focusing on funding challenges facing post-school education. We want our proposals to spark a debate between now and May about how education can be at the heart of economic growth.

No politician is going to talk down education in the run up to an election and there have been some positive policy suggestions from the main parties in recent months. However, we need education to become a key issue as we approach the election and we need much more than just warm words from politicians.

In further education, there has been a 12 per cent year-on-year drop in the number of adults taking out loans for courses at level 3 and 4, which suggests that debt fears are acting as a disincentive to adults entering vocational courses.

Public funding for vocational education is increasingly focused on apprenticeships, but provisional data shows that 65,000 fewer adults started an apprenticeship this year than in 2013/14. Apprenticeships in their current guise simply aren’t working for everyone.

We would increase the length of apprenticeship to three years, ensure they offer a genuine route to professional status and pay at least the national minimum wage. We want to see a bespoke lifelong learning model for people aged over 25, taking account of previous experience and career changes, not just preparing them for work.

Radical alternatives to the current system are needed and the next government must consider additional support to encourage retention of young people and personalised funding streams to support learners of all ages. Cuts to public funding have been damaging and destabilising, leading to reduced job security for staff and a narrower offer for students.

We believe our vision for post-school education would create a fairer system that would help people reach their full potential, regardless of age or background and at minimum cost to the individual. This would also help make the UK a more attractive place for the best and brightest to work and study.

It’s now up to the political parties and, like voters, we are keen to assess what they have to offer. Earlier this year we devised a system to judge new policy announcements in a constructive and even-handed way, whatever their origin. We believe these six tests are the big questions that we should be asking if we want to create fairer and more sustainable post-compulsory education systems.

UCU’s six tests:

  1. make it easier for people to reach their full potential;
  2. increase the UK’s academic capacity and research base;
  3. make the UK a more attractive place for academic staff to work;
  4. make it less costly for individuals to study, whether young or old;
  5. broaden the range of subjects available for study and;
  6. lead to higher quality and reduced fragmentation in the sector.

Only by grasping the nettle and admitting that change is needed will we see genuine improvements for those that work and study in post-school education, and for the country as a whole. The ball is now in politicians’ courts. We look forward to seeing and assessing what they come up with.

You can learn more on the funding seminar Sally is chairing today by following the Knowledge Economy Twitter feed @investnextgen and the hashtag #KEfunding 

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