Of Course it’s the Money, Stupid!
The increase in the number of unconditional places being awarded at universities from 2985 in 2013 to 67,195, an increase of more than 2100% threatens, in the words of Sam Gyimah, the universities minister to ‘undermine the credibility of higher education’. While he is right to feel concerned, perhaps he might also take time to reflect on the causes of such an implosion: the fault, after all, doesn’t lie just at the doors of the universities, but is symptomatic of a system that has long predicated university as the culmination of an school system based on a competitive business model governed by supply and demand.
It was always thus, no doubt, but in recent years, with the decentralisation of schools and funding cuts, all education institutions have been compelled to exercise much tighter control over the supply of money and seeing their business as, first and foremost, results driven.
Independent schools, historic charities but more often these days hard–nosed, business operations with boards packed with influential alumni and successful businessmen who have been running their schools with this mind-set for ages, riding out the storms, working on efficiencies and replacing a slightly flagging Old Boy network with facilities superior to any competitor. Their very existence depends on getting students through the door in an increasingly hostile climate. But state education was never a business, depending on academic results alone. Trying to replicate the independent sector, with the growth of free schools and academies, but without the wherewithal and freedom to do so effectively does not work, especially when real-term funding is under constant pressure. Yet the measures applied are much the same: academic success, schools are told, depends upon results and consequent roll growth. Between 2000 and 2010, the education budget doubled without producing a commensurate improvement in results. Since that time, we have entered a time, epitomised by league tables that has embraced results as the be-all and end-all without sufficient focus on what the system provided for those not suited, by aptitude, ability or inclination, by such an economic model. Instead, the drive for results has led to a burgeoning education industry that has responded to the pressure placed on staff and schools to get the best results for students, whether the subjects chosen, or the pressure applied, is in the best interests of the children or not. The results have been growing incidences of cheating and malpractice and examination boards, all of which are profit driven (not just Edexel which is owned by the publishers, Pearsons), persuading schools to shop with them; or by any of a growing number of panacea that schools are tempted to buy into. As a result, the number of students being tutored has skyrocketed, as have exclusions, while the incidence of stress and depression in the young has also continued to increase under the threat of league tables which continue to persuade schools to make decisions that are at best expedient, yet more often than not working against the best interests of children. Academic performance and the accumulation of data from Key Stage One onwards is directed unwaveringly at A Levels and university entrance. It may have made schools lean and more business like, but at a huge cost.
Every part of education is now full of bindweed, of contrary advice, of administrative overload. Teachers and parents are assailed by an educational publishing industry (‘here’s ten must-read books for your summer holidays’) or examination boards, driven by profit and loss; whether it is heads, ignoring experienced and well-qualified teachers because they add too much to their staffing costs or worse, driving out older teachers on trumped up capability charges, the purpose is the same, to drive down costs, even if the salaries of some ‘super heads’ makes a mockery of such intentions. Or else it is the effects of a burgeoning advisory and conference industry, set up to improve staff by offering courses in professional development, but run by independent providers and consultancies, each squeezing their piece out of the education grant.
Accountability is fine, but not when it is driven by the need to produce grades required for university admission rather than a wider, more balanced curriculum; nor when it is to do with universities simply trying to stay afloat and maximise their income; nor, even more pointedly, when it compels schools to act against the best interests of children. It is sad when it is the creative subjects that are squeezed out by the demands of an avaricious exam system that needs data to graze on.
Perhaps universities are responding in their own way to an education system that has been made excessively competitive, excessively market-driven, with all the good and bad that that involves by looking after their own interests rather than those of the sector – or the students; perhaps that is the real issue that needs addressing.