Graduates don’t rate their degrees

Given Labour’s bold and exciting proposals for a free cradle to grave National Education Service, failures in the further and higher education sectors are also issues for schools.

We are lucky to have six grandchildren, who bring us great joy. The eldest of these will soon be thinking about university and naturally we hope the younger ones will follow: or do we?

My wife and I are both from council house, working class backgrounds and we were the first from either family to go to university. All of our children attended local comprehensive schools in the 1970s and 80s and they too all became graduates and progressed to professional careers.

So what as gone wrong? According to a recent ‘YouGov’ poll, there is considerable dissatisfaction on the part of recent graduates.

“new YouGov Omnibus research among more than 500 current students and recent graduates shows their views on whether university is worth it. It finds that more than a third (35%) of those with a student loan who graduated between 2010 and 2017 disagreed that the “costs of going to university were worth it for the career prospects/learning I gained”.

A lot of the gripes are unsurprisingly related to money, tuition fees and student loans, which helped bring out the youth vote for Labour in the June 2017 General Election.

“When it comes to the costs of a degree, YouGov’s research also finds that there is significant pessimism among both recent graduates and current students with loans about whether they will ever be free of the burden of repayments during their working life. When asked how long they expected it would take to pay off their student loan, 41% of both recent graduates and current students say they don’t think they ever will.”

The government’s Teaching excellence framework (TEF) results 2017, also caused a stir revealing widely disparate teaching standards, including a surprising number of long established, prestigious institutions in the lowest (bronze) category along with perhaps the more expected former non-university Colleges, raised to university status by the Blair higher education reforms and his ambition for half the population to become university graduates.

I was a beneficiary of Harold Wilson’s ‘technological revolution’, graduating in 1969 from a free university education supported by a generous means tested maintenance grant. Our children followed, attending universities in the 1980s and 90s, still free from tuition fees. Our eldest got a maintenance grant, but the last two had student loans. In 1982 I was seconded by Leicestershire County Council from the school at which I was then teaching onto a full time Masters Degree course in Education at Leicester University, on full salary with daily travel expenses. This was career and life changing. My readers can largely blame this for my blogs.

I wonder how Harold Wilson would view the degradation of our higher education system and the downgrading of the public education function that it once so proudly embodied.

The ‘degradation’ has come slowly but surely. Our eldest graduated from a long established northern university in 1994 with a first in Chemistry. I will always remember the Vice Chancellor’s stirring address at the degree congregation. The broad subject of this was ‘public obligation’ and the duty of graduates to acknowledge society’s investment with right conduct and public service wherever possible.

Now move forward to 2001 and our youngest’s engineering degree congregation at another long established northern university. The Vice Chancellor’s address could not have been more different. This was a bragging, self-congratulatory, PR spin, endorsing the ‘world class entrepreneurial status’ of the university under his management.

It was then that I realised that higher education had been privatised. In terms of public service, it has gone downhill ever since as Blair’s reforms took their intended course and the inevitable consequences have unfolded. This model of Vice Chancellor has since been further developed along with levels of remuneration their predecessors would have neither dreamed off nor approved.

What then are the consequences, apart from thousands of impoverished graduates with no hope of obtaining graduate employment or paying off their debts? There is certainly the loss of Local Authority controlled Further Education colleges, which had many positive roles of which supporting local industry apprenticeships and a wide variety of vocational qualifications was just one. In the November 2017 Budget the Conservative Chancellor tried vainly to put a positive spin on the current dire independent UK economic forecasts (even without the impending Brexit catastrophe), blaming this on historic low productivity, without acknowledging the downgrading of our publicly financed and locally accountable FE College system and its transformation away from public education .

FE Colleges did so such a lot. There was adult education on a massive scale. In the City of Leicester, Charles Keene FE College provided a pre-university course for mature students, many of whom were mothers who had taken their first tentative steps back into education through daytime classes (sometimes alongside school students) at Leicestershire’s 14-18 Community Colleges. Such courses had affordable course fees with discounts and exemptions for the unwaged and those in receipt of benefits.

In a welcome recent article, Fiona Millar appears at last to have accepted the necessity for the rebirth of Local Education Authorities if Labour’s National Education Service is to be realised.

However, nothing yet very radical from Labour on Higher Education Reform, where the abolition of tuition fees will not be achievable, without significant structural change and the rebirth of an extensive, comprehensive, locally accountable FE College sector. This needs to be built into the economic devolution plans of the ‘Midlands Engine’, ‘Northern Powerhouse’ etc., but not forgetting the needs of swathes of rural and smaller urban communities throughout the UK.

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