Presumably having run out of coal, Peter Mandelson yesterday announced his gift to Higher Education in 2010. Mandelson made a decision to reduce spending from £7.8 billion to £7.3 billion and has lots of ideas for how this might be implemented. One of the suggested measures is the reduction of degree courses from three to two years.
“2010 for education is becoming a buzzword for reassessment and belt-tightening”
The National Union of Students has raised its objections, arguing that any cuts lack foresight and will have unforeseen economic ramifications. But recession perhaps forces leaders to assess the pragmatic solutions to the current situation, rather than continuing to spend in the hope that it will eventually solve itself. As with every area of public service, 2010 for education is becoming a buzzword for reassessment and belt-tightening. The government’s ability – and inclination – to accept this necessity is something which should be appreciated, if not exactly celebrated. However, it is the suggested modes of implementation which make this already bitter pill a little bit harder to swallow. The idea that these cuts in spending should lead to a reduction or dilution of the current situation seems to lack insight into the problem and feels somewhat like putting plasters on a flesh wound.
“The government perhaps needs to look back to dividing higher education into vocational and academic courses, and to adequately fund and reward both halves”
It seems to stem from the same idea which led to the consolidation of universities and polytechnics in 1992. If everyone could be said to go to university, this could be seen as extending its capabilities, rather than giving it unnecessary and inappropriate burdens. Abolishing polytechnics meant getting rid of schools of higher education which were directly designed to serve industry, thus diluting their service and purpose in the act of ‘elevating’ them to universities. In addition, the way in which universities encourage students to move away from home – as was much less common with local polytechnics – the move increased the financial burden on universities from the outset. In a similar way, limiting any university courses to two years (particularly those that the intellectually arrogant refer to as ‘lower-value’ courses) would be a failure to the other end of the higher education spectrum. Rather than continuing to extend the traditional forms of higher education, and this leading to a dilution of quality of the intellectual experience, the government perhaps needs to look back to dividing higher education into vocational and academic courses, and to adequately fund and reward both halves – albeit differently.
“The suggestion of limiting university to two years is also to undermine its social and psychological impact”
But as much as it appears to be misunderstanding the relationship between education and our economic future, it also lacks comprehension of the purpose of higher education. Of course, the central issue (as it should remain) is that being given two years to complete a degree does not give time to either cover the amount of academic ground necessary, nor to allow the change in ways of research and presentation which have been the distinguishing features of university level education. But without wishing to summon up visions of Kukui on a Tuesday night, the suggestion of limiting university to two years is also to undermine its social and psychological impact. Many argue that a shortening would be impossible because it takes the first year to bring students to the level which A-levels previously ensured. But it also takes some of the first year to bring about the emotional maturity which is just as crucial to success at university as is passing the exams. Just as university is not entirely about getting drunk, so it is not entirely about academic pursuit; there is a balance which is both desirable and necessary to retain sanity, particularly if not exclusively at places like Oxford.
As I see it, shortening university would lead to under-prepared and under-educated 20 year olds being forced to compete for jobs in the global market, a fact which doesn’t just scare me because I’m a 21-year old second-year. In an economic climate in which graduates are desperately trying to extend their time at university in order not to have to enter the battlefield of job applications, Mandelson’s substitution of a shortening rather than a complete overhaul of tertiary education feels entirely baffling.