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Set-up to Fail…


Some years ago, when the world was young and Tony Blair was still a new boy at Number 10, I had a part-time job teaching in the Education faculty of one of our new universities. It was a ‘learning experience’ as one might expect but I enjoyed working with my colleagues and students… and it was a change from several years of school teaching and research work.

I remember two things very strongly. One was 170 students enrolling for my 16 place course on Emotional and Behavioural Difficulties in School, the other was the university’s laudable policy to include students from non-traditional academic backgrounds.

I have always believed that the teacher’s duty to bring out the best in their students is tempered by an equal and opposite requirement that you do not set them up to fail. You are the grown-up and it is your professional judgement as to whether that person will cope. If all you are doing is chasing ‘bums on seats’, who will earn you fees but fail the course, then you should be running a gambling den rather than a place of learning.

So many of those non-traditional mature students, former drug dealers and prostitutes among them, had such chaotic lives that studying was the last thing they were going to be able to manage. They were being set-up to fail, again. That was the last thing they needed

Don’t get me wrong. I know my Jackson and Marsden: there is no reason why people from less privileged backgrounds shouldn’t do very well at university and go on to have fulfilling careers to the greater good of themselves and the rest of the nation. But, should this be done at any price? What happens if, by enabling the few, you disadvantage most of those from similar families?

Since those rose tinted, dewy eyed days, thirteen years ago, many, many, many more students from such backgrounds are starting university. But they are not finishing their courses. They have not been properly prepared for university and many of the new universities have not been properly prepared for them.

We have the highest number of university drop-outs in the OECD. In 2005, more than a third of those who started higher education failed to finish: a proportion which continues to rise. And those institutions that have been set-up in a hurry, just like those non-traditional students, have been worst hit. Drop-out rates among Britain’s unlikely named newer institutions has been as high as 79% (Buckinghamshire Chilterns University College 78.9% 2006) although the elite universities see drop out at less than 2%.

It is not insignificant that Britain spends below the OECD average on higher education, behind countries including France, Canada and the United States. We are trying to force the expansion of higher education through on the cheap. Those running our country must realise that you can’t have all the national and personal benefits of the academy if what you are offering is an academic Aldi.

As we approach the UK elections, it will be in the interests of everyone if the electorate, through the print, broadcast and online media, tells the political parties that a university system which tolerates high drop-out rates for the poorest and most vulnerable in society is compounding their woes, not helping them.

Isn’t it about time someone had the guts to admit that we can’t offer a good quality higher education to 50% of our kids? It isn’t what we can afford. It ain’t what they need and it will be the poorest who suffer most.

Isn’t it time to be adult and recognise that there is no glory in expanding a system which actually disadvantages more of the vulnerable than it empowers?

So, where are the grown-ups?

From → Education, Policy

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