I am writing this article sitting in the library of a university that not so long ago was a polytechnic. There is a pass around my neck that lets me through the door and the security guard was no more unfriendly to me than anyone else when I arrived.
Even so I shouldn’t really be here, at least not in the opinion of a government, most of whom went to public schools and then to universities where the walls were covered with ivy rather than made of concrete.
Minimum Entry Requirements
My impression from the consultation document issued by the government is that they will make it harder for people like me to enter higher education. They include requiring applicants to have either GCSE level 4 passes in Maths and English or the equivalent to two E grades at A Level.
They claim this is to prevent universities from recruiting students who aren’t ready for higher education, or recruiting them onto courses that won’t help them get a graduate level job. Instead, they will be ‘encouraged’ to take up apprenticeships or other kinds of study.
In a statement reported by the BBC, the Department for Education expresses concern that “not all students receive the same high quality of teaching” and that they “need to ensure that we are creating opportunities that will not only open doors but will develop the talent our country needs to prosper now and in the future.”
There may be an exemption for mature students, the group I belong to being one, but that does not make me feel any less angered by what is going on. If I were applying now instead of in 2016, I’d feel less confident of getting a place and might not even have given it a go.
There is a tangle of assumptions and prejudices contained in these plans to rival the gordian knot. What they amount to is a not all that covert attempt to reserve higher education for the upper middle classes. The class most politicians hail from.
For a start, asking for two GCSE passes in Maths and English, while seeming practical, hides a bias against state school pupils who may have struggled to get good grades at GCSE. They haven’t had access to support because the funding for it has long since been erased by austerity.
There is also the impact of being one of the 4.5 million children currently living in poverty to be considered. It is hard to concentrate on jumping through the outmoded hoops of the exam system when you’re cold, hungry and not sure if you’ll have a roof over your head this time next week.
Being able to read, write and use numbers are vital skills for life let alone getting into university, and schools should have the resources to help every student learn them. Instead, successive governments, including the Labour ones of 1997/2010 have sliced and diced the education system with endless targets, initiatives and academisation to the point where it is almost set up to fail.
Then there is the claim this will stop students wasting three years studying for a ‘mickey mouse’ degree that won’t get them a job. Like classics perhaps? Isn’t the current PM a graduate in that subject? While I’d rather he didn’t have his current job, being fluent in a couple of dead languages hasn’t held him back.
The inference seems to be that it’s ok for the elite to study esoteric subjects with little or no practical use. For you, me and the kids in the next street who are filing out their UCAS forms, things are entirely more utilitarian. We should only be taught those things that we can employ to turn a profit for our masters.
There is no shame in doing practical work; a degree is the badge of neither intellect nor merit in and of itself. What higher education does is teach people to think, question and challenge. It invites us all to develop who we are, not just learn the skills that make us useful at generating profits.
Education For All
This points up what is at the root of changes that can only, along with exorbitant tuition fees, make higher education increasingly something only the lucky few will be able to enjoy. Those who hold power fear working people gaining an education and will do all they can to prevent them doing so.
The paranoia of the elite about the possibility of working-class people getting into higher education has grown as ever more of us do so, 28% of 18-year-olds from deprived backgrounds applied to study at university last year, compared to 18% in 2013.
These proposals are open to consultation which closes on 6th May. Education to the highest level is the right of every individual. Socialists, whatever else we disagree on, are united on this point. We should actively oppose every attempt to take it away.