Should universities merge or not? Should we charge students £3,000, £6,000 or £9,000 for their first full-time undergraduate degree?
The debates above are the debates that have clogged up mainstream media in Wales on education for the past two years.
We have governments that still will only tinker around the edges of policy with a narrow five or four year electoral cycle focus.
We have categories for every type of student, for every type of provision and every type of institutions – each loaded with prestige and value, or otherwise. Higher education vs. further education, colleges vs. universities, traditional vs. modern, academic vs. vocational, research vs. teaching, formal vs. informal. The list goes on and on. These divisions are arbitrary and out dated, and create artificial barriers that disenfranchise and marginalise students at every level.
We have pre-determined paths and barriers at every step from primary school onwards – unforgiving of mistakes and unforgiving of the undecided.
HE and FE – a post compulsory education system
Indeed, our system is based on one that values one particular route of study over all others – the academic journey from A-level to undergraduate, right through to PhD study. We are trapped in seeing education as only a linear process. Our pre-occupation with the ‘academic’ does us a disservice overall. Not only does it most advantage the most advantaged in society, but it devalues the wider value of education, especially the important areas of vocational skills training.
Imagine an education system where the divide between HE and FE no longer exists. Where you could be simultaneously study an engineering apprenticeship in a college and also a module in history. Where the student parent can dip in and out of a degree, studying on a truly flexible basis and not constrained by a three year full-time model. Where highly demanding and relevant skills-based courses are given the equivalent prestige as academic study. Where higher education leads to further education, and not just the other way around.
This is an education system that is about a journey, where the majority of society is invested and participating in throughout their life. This is an education system that we can start to call universal.
What we need to talk about is education from post-compulsory level onwards, including courses studied at both further education colleges and universities, from degrees to diplomas to A-levels. Post-compulsory is more than just a technical term. It is about making it our idea of education: what we want from education as a whole; what should it mean to people, wider society and the economy; and how should people engage with it. For this vision of education to work there are areas of our education system that would need to be transformed, and in Wales I am convinced we could and should make this vision a reality.
Something that would no longer make sense in a post-compulsory more holistic style of education is our current funding model for students – not the headline figures about fees but the money students can actually access to live whilst they study.
This system would no longer make sense because such a large proportion of this money only goes to one level of student – the full-time undergraduate. With rising costs of living and stagnant loans and grants, how are we expecting to truly open education up in a universal way? When an adult is returning to education to re-skill, how is it acceptable that they can’t access public money to support themselves? This is not about pitching one set of students against another. Instead we need to work together to come up with a solution for student funding that makes every level of education accessible financially.
This vision will never work if we don’t start winning the arguments of the public value of education, with politicians, the sector and the public. Education can be truly transformational, with an aging population, with new economies developing. We will destroy the power of education if we continue to see universities and colleges as just businesses that need to satisfy a consumer.
Investing in education is investing in people’s futures and providing them with a second chance. Education could be about not only transforming people but transforming communities. Why do we still keep knowledge and privilege trapped inside the gates of university and college campuses. Why does learning always have to be a lecture theatre? Why can’t adults learn in schools? Why does it always have to be the old teaching the young?
We are starting to talk about an education system that everyone can believe in, where education goes back to being a social good for wider society and the communities that we live in and shape.
Join us in our journey to imagine a better education system for Wales.