03 Nov 2011
‘The idea – which I have to say has affected large numbers of politicians – that you can just give people at university a certificate and, hey presto, they’ll earn this amount more and the country will be x-amount richer has always seemed so bizarre to me that I have to pinch myself that so many apparently rational people believe exactly that.’
by Tim Black
Professor Alison Wolf is a breathless speaker – as I discovered while trying to keep up during the course of our interview. But as the author of Does Education Matter? Myths About Education and Economic Growth, and more recently of the government-commissioned Review of Vocational Education, Wolf is certainly worth listening to on the plight of British universities. And nowhere is her insight more valuable than when it comes to tackling what she has called ‘the great secular faith of our age’ – namely, the idea that education is the key to economic growth, swelling both an individual’s bank balance and expanding a nation’s GDP.
There’s no doubt that this is a faith with many followers. And not just among a political class that has long trumpeted, as Tony Blair did in 1997, the importance of ‘education, education, education’. Current critics of the Lib-Con coalition’s higher-education policies, especially with regards to tuition fees, are similarly enchanted by the idea that developing a nation of university graduates is the key to economic growth and individual affluence – or ‘social mobility’, to use current political argot.
For instance, at the annual conference of the University and College Union, general secretary Sally Hunt attacked the funding cuts to the higher-education (HE) sector on the grounds that increasing student numbers ought to be a priority. Quantity definitely matters to Hunt: ‘Since the turn of the century, the UK’s qualification rates have been overtaken by Iceland, Poland, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, the Netherlands, Japan, Ireland, Portugal, the US, Sweden, Denmark and Norway.’ Her point was clear enough: Britain needs to get more and more people through the gates of universities and further-education (FE) colleges so as to compete with countries with a similarly large student population. She reasons that it’s only through a proliferation of HE and university qualifications that economies grow and individuals become ‘socially mobile’. It’s on these grounds that Hunt criticises tuition fees and the abolition of the education maintenance grant for college-goers: ‘[Government ministers] claim their goal is to promote social mobility, but we must judge them by what they do, not what they say. In reality, coalition policy is about putting barriers up, not pulling them down.’
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