Nick Clegg says education will be a priority for him. He was talking about schools, but he and Stephen Williams would do well to look at what the government is proposing to do to universities. John Denham, The Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills, has announced that they propose to withdraw funding from higher level students whose current studies are at a level equivalent to or lower than the qualification they already have. In shorthand, the ELQ (Equivalent or Lower Qualification) problem. I have to declare an interest here. I work for the Open University, and that institution will be disproportionately affected by this decision. There are various exemptions in place and some transitional arrangements, but these leave an awful lot of people out in the cold. They are also inconsistently drawn. Teaching, for instance, is exempted, but the subject qualification that lies behind the teaching qualification will not be (unless it falls into one of the exemption categories on its own merit).
The plan is to divert £100 million from supporting students retraining themselves with equivalent or lower qualifications in another discipline to students who have never been to university. At first glance that looks "equitable", but it is not an answer to our educational or economic problems. We need to maintain people's ability to move from one market sector to another, as well as encouraging more people to go to university.
In addition there is no clear evidence that people who want to go to university for the first time are being denied that opportunity.
This plan has a disproportionate effect on older (i.e. over 25) and part time students, and hence on the OU, which reckons it will lose some 29000 students. And in addition to the direct losses of students who cannot afford the full fees, the law of unintended consequences comes into play. The effect of losing those students means that a number of the courses they sustain will become unviable and will have to close, thus being denied to all the students who wish to study them.
Some might think that the students most likely to be affected are elderly and recreational, but the profile of OU students is not reflected in that prejudice. 85 per cent of Open University students affected are aged between 25 and 65, 74 per cent of them are working and paying taxes and 9 per cent of them are carers. (Figures given by Lord Haskins in the House of Lords debate on the subject, on 3rd December.)
While doing this, the government has just doubled the Train to Gain budget from £500 million to £1 billion within the next three years. That is a massive increase with little indication that employers have either the will or the capacity to absorb it. £400 million for them, and let the universities keep the £100 million sounds like a much better bet for spending the money effectively.
This is a piece of profoundly unjoined up thinking. We all know, and the government keep telling us anyway, that we need our workforce to become educated and flexible if we are to compete in the world market, and maintain, indeed improve, our prosperity. So, while desperately encouraging people to retrain in order to follow the market, they are taking away the means of them doing so.
They are doing this on the basis of a target driven piece of thinking, and another good example of why targets skew thinking. The target the government is committed to is to achieve 40% of the working population having a degree by 2020. It's an ambitious, laudable, and necessary target, but the government is allowing it to magnetise the focus of their thinking to the extent of ignoring the overall needs of the workforce. It should not be allowed to dominate to the extent of diverting attention from the need of UK plc for a diversity of provision to accommodate the increasingly diverse needs of the workforce.