Friday, 17 December 2010
Yesterday, Mike Russell publish his green paper on the Future of Higher Education and its funding. It didn't contain solutions but options, which included increased support from business and more philanthropic giving.
Giving the stooshie over tuition fees in England, and the proximity of next year's Holyrood elections, all the parties in the Scottish Parliament are manoeuvring round the issue rather than tackling it head on, but Mike Russell did make some interesting remarks during his round of media interviews.
A couple caught my attention but unfortunately they weren't expanded. "... the ability to learn and not the ability to pay," and "... we need to cast an eye over the number of universities we have in Scotland". Both remarks are related because, before a long term funding solution is found, we have to question the necessity for 50% of our school leavers to become undergraduates and also the quality of some of the courses on offer. Is it necessary that many courses are of a 4 year duration?
University attendance is seen to be glamorous whereas college is thought to be for those less able. I know from my own experience this isn't true but to avoid this division many excellent colleges changed to calling themselves universities and are now no longer places of excellence. Of course they didn't change solely for that reason - they receive more money having university status - but it certainly was one of the factors which was taken into account.
Some years ago now I questioned the head of one Scottish university about the need for courses to last 4 years. His answer was simple. If Scottish schools provided a better quality and choice of 6th form studies then more pupils would stay on at school. Scottish youngsters are often only 16 when they enter the university system and the first year is spent settling them into 'the system' with a minimum amount of time spent on their chosen subject.
Maybe it is time to consider restructuring the whole further education system. Very recently I was given information about modern apprenticeships which are nothing more than training or retraining courses which do not recognise the excellent standards of City of Guilds and other top quality qualifications. They are nothing less than a suitable description made to entice learners, at the same time ignoring those who do undertake 'old fashioned' apprenticeships. Not many years ago apprentices were respected because those wishing to learn a trade usually had to spend 3, 4 or 5 years learning from their employer and supported by day or evening college attendance. Businesses preferred to choose their own apprentices because there was a good possibility, once the apprenticeship was complete, that the person who continue with the company. With modern apprenticeships that is seldom the case. The apprentice is not an employee of the company but of the government.
Before more money is handed to further education, a change in its structure is required. Universities won't want courses to be shortened. That reduces their funding. But we should be aiming to provide the best quality of higher education possible for anyone who has the interest and ability to learn and not be concentrating on the number of people we can push through the system. Nobody wins in that situation except university coffers.
The ability to learn must be the priority. Those who fit that criteria deserve the help of taxpayers. Should we be 'pricing' each individual course rather than a flat fee? Just a thought.