I COULD save Theresa May the bother of holding a review into higher education. I’m telling her now that the only people who have benefitted from the tripling of tuition fees are senior management staff such as vice-chancellors who demand – and are paid – astronomical six-figure sums to do their jobs.
Research by Times Higher Education earlier this year found that the average salary and benefits of a vice-chancellor at the top 24 universities in this country was a staggering £331,641 in 2016-17, more than double the salary of the Prime Minister.
That’s what you get when you allow universities to triple fees up to a maximum of £9,000 a year – thanks David Cameron and Nick Clegg – and tell these educational institutions to operate on a business model. I know this because I worked in one part-time, teaching journalism and media, until a few years ago.
I could tell you about the desperate efforts undertaken to recruit high-paying overseas students who turn up with only the basic grasp of English and little hope of keeping up with their studies.
I could talk about the academics who have lost their jobs as unprofitable courses have been axed.
And I could offer my sympathy to the PhD students obliged to teach in place of those axed academics when they should be undertaking research instead.
I won’t talk about any of these, however, because this review is necessary if the country is to address the acute difficulties young people face when it comes to entering further and higher education and training, preparing for a life of work, earning money and paying taxes.
Let’s not gloss over the key role of further education. Too many politicians assume that teenagers leave school at 16 and make a seamless jump into the unknown. I’ve yet to hear one express true appreciation of the fact that this is make or break time for countless young people.
Every decision taken at post-16 shapes the life choices of an individual; it’s vital in terms of social mobility, self-confidence and how local and regional economies are formed and thrive (or not). We should be throwing money into supporting sixth form and further education colleges to advise and guide.
I’ve a vested interest. My son leaves school this year and is hoping to study for A-Levels with the aim of becoming a history teacher. His ideal future scenario is some kind of paid apprenticeship in a secondary school rather than three years doing a degree. It’s not the essays and library hours putting him off. It’s the potential tuition fees debt of at least £27,000 and the fact that he’ll have to rely on his parents until his early 20s.
There must be thousands of young people like Jack, who want to enter teaching say, or medicine, or the law, but are afraid of the cost of getting there. If this review is to achieve anything of substance, it needs to address this issue. There’s no point bandying around the word “vocational” without the faintest idea what it means in reality.
It’s the same with that other buzzword “apprenticeships”. Politicians seem to think that an apprenticeship is a panacea for all that ails further and higher education and British industry. Sadly, it isn’t.
For every excellent boss offering a useful apprenticeship to an enthusiastic and committed teenager, there are 10 who make Lord Sugar look like Father Christmas. I’ve heard some proper horror stories about firms which refuse to pay the already-paltry hourly wage of £3.50, who sack apprentices as soon as their time is up and generally resent having their arm twisted into participating in the scheme.
I hope that the forthcoming National Apprenticeship Week will address these failings.
In fact, if we are to move forward, it’s time for some honesty all round. The Prime Minister must instruct her review team to start with first principles. Most important is to establish a clear understanding of the difference between academic and vocational learning.
There are some hard economic truths to swallow here. For instance, it’s a bit rich for Mrs May to express her earnest devotion to the vocational route when the Conservatives have repeatedly cut funding for further education colleges, the main providers of such training.
She must also instruct her team to look at the entire premise of running universities as if they were multi-national companies reliant on an ever-expanding sausage machine of students to fill their coffers.
Cap the number of students and raise the bar for admissions to academic degrees. This will hurt, but the blow will be softened if the Government, at the same time, commits to a properly planned and fully-costed expansion of vocational training and apprenticeships to offer young people a genuine choice. Instead of pandering to the demands of vice-chancellors, address instead the fears of young people. They, after all, are the future.