Opinion: A Liberal approach to Higher Education

University campusWhen people ask me why I’m a Liberal Democrat, I simplify it slightly. Yes, it’s because I have a Liberal Democrat Member of Parliament and I think he’s pretty great, but it’s also because I quite like freedom, and I think it should be applied more liberally (see what I did there?).

I always describe Liberalism as being obsessed with freedom. It’s a very simple way of encompassing so many of the campaigns and issues we care so passionately about. We raised the tax threshold, because people on low incomes deserve freedom from a punitive tax burden. We legalised same-sex marriage because people deserve the freedom to marry whoever they see fit. The changes to benefits – controversial thought they are – are about ensuring that people aren’t beholden to the state without good reason.

The area that I think is most desperate for this application of freedom is Higher or Further Education.

Last week thousands upon thousands of young people will have received results which probably will mean they’ve been accepted into a University course, or that they’ll have to enter clearing. In 2010 I received my A-Level results, and I was happy to have secured a place at the University of Sussex. I hadn’t given endless thought to whether I actually wanted to go to Uni, I’d spent my time thinking where I’d like to go instead and Brighton seemed as nice a place as any. I intermitted (or dropped out…) two years later, having become horrible depressed and horribly unfulfilled.

The legacy of New Labour’s view, that Uni was the fix-all, still lives on, with students being assessed not on their potential but their ability to accumulate UCAS points. It’s all wrong. Labour were wrong to believe that everybody should aspire to a University education. Quite simply, because everybody shouldn’t. My stepfather drives lorries for a living – it’s what he’s done for a very long time and he’s very good at it. My Mum cares for people with learning disabilities and she does a damned good job. Neither of them went to Uni, and both are playing an important role in the day to day working of our country.

The system desperately needs an overhaul, where the potential of young people is put at the centre of the policy. Yes, University is brilliant for some people, and it’s needed in many cases. But, that should only form part of the policy. Our country will always need hairdressers, accountants, undertakers – all careers that can be learnt in the workplace. A truly Liberal framework for Higher Education wouldn’t focus on Universities, it would focus on each person’s birthright to fulfil his or her potential.

The fact that our current system sees vocational study as an afterthought is appalling. When I was younger, vocational courses were where you’d send students who you couldn’t get to sit at a table for long enough. I saw students pigeonholed into courses like Health & Social Care because it meant they stopped being a problem for teachers in classrooms. It isn’t good enough, and it diminishes life chances. Yes, we’ve done a great deal of work on apprenticeships, but the culture of Higher Education first hasn’t changed, and students are still pushed toward Uni as if it’s some kind of cookie-cutter problem solver.

I personally hope that our next manifesto has a varied and complex policy on Higher Education where potential is valued above all else. Students whose University place has been confirmed in the last few days should be congratulated, it’s a real achievement, but, we as Liberal Democrats need to consider the life chances of those who aren’t going to Uni, or to whom it isn’t suited. Those people are the challenge, and those are the ones we mustn’t fail.


* Sam Phripp is a District Councillor from Frome in Somerset. He blogs at www.sosamsaid.blogspot.com

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  • Daniel Henry 20th Aug '13 - 1:28pm

    What’s your opinion on the policy paper to be discussed at conference?

    Does it achieve the things you call for or do you feel it needs amending?

  • Matthew Huntbach 20th Aug '13 - 2:45pm

    but the culture of Higher Education first hasn’t changed, and students are still pushed toward Uni as if it’s some kind of cookie-cutter problem solver.

    Yes, and so what exactly do you want to do about it? Who is it you claim is doing the pushing and how is it you propose to stop them?

    It could be said that by imposing full tuition fees, albeit balanced by a loan that only has to be paid off if you earn enough to do so, the current government has done something very effective about it. This year it seems to have been the case that one can hardly open a newspaper around this time without coming across an opinion piece taking the line “going to university isn’t worth it, young people should consider other options”.

    It seems to me you are drawing a false distinction between university education and vocational education. Many university degrees are vocationally oriented. This is in part a consequence of the decision to rebrand as “universities” the institutions formerly known as “polytechnics” and having their roots as institutions run by local government with the prime role of training local people in the skills needed locally. The idea of this rebranding was to solve the problem you are writing about, it was considered that if you called these institutions “universities” and called the qualifications they gave “degrees”, they would be regarded as having the same status as existing institutions called “universities” and awarding “degrees”.

    However, I say “in part” because many of the universities that already had university status back when polytechnics were rebranded also had their roots in technical training. I am a lecturer at Queen Mary, University of London, which was founded “to improve the scientific and technical knowledge of apprentices and workmen engaged in industrial life” (I am taking this from its Wikipedia page), and achieved university status in 1907. I teach in the School of Electronic Engineering and Computer Science at Queen Mary, and what I teach is directly relevant to current employment needs. See here. OK, it’s an Australian page, but recruiters here say exactly the same as they do, I just happen to have come across this one recently, and they’ve put it in a nice succinct way. I teach exactly what these people say employers want, and I assess the work of my students in a way that means if they get a good grade I can guarantee they can give the sort of accurate, clear and concise answers to questions on basic computer programming topics these people say most job applicants can’t give.

    A big problem is that most employers aren’t prepared to invest in the sort of long-term training it needs to get people to the skill levels they need. That is why they leave it to universities to do it, now paid by the students themselves. Or they complain about “shortage of skills” and then bring in people from other countries to do the jobs – other countries which are foolish enough to pay the money needed to give their young people the skills.

    However, one of the biggest barriers I face is the anti-academic mentality in this country typified by your remark “The legacy of New Labour’s view, that Uni was the fix-all, still lives on, with students being assessed not on their potential but their ability to accumulate UCAS points.” I am sorry, but that is NOT how I work. I have been dealing with UCAS admissions this week, and what I want most certainly IS students with potential to gain the skills I teach, not “UCAS points”. In my experience, the best way of developing and assessing these skills is studying Mathematics to A-level, but also doing A-levels which develop and assess writing and analytical skills is the best way of developing and showing you have the potential, and the best for this are the traditional arts subjects. What makes it hard is the readiness of so many young people to reject this sort of subject under the supposition it is “irrelevant”.

  • I always get confused in these discussions about the following points.

    1. Why everyone goes on about the axpansion of HE under Labour

    Labour talked about increasing the proportion of students going to university to 50% but failed to achieve it. They also failed to increase the proportion by anything like as much as that achieved by the Tory party in the late 80s and early 90s. Student numbers more than doubled in the space of less than 5 years under Thatcher/Major without much in the way of increased funding for the institutions that had to teach the swelling ranks.

    2. The vocational subjects aren’t treated as seriously as academic subjects argument

    This really irritates me. Some of the most demanding and traditional academic university courses are vocational and technical – e.g. medicine, engineering. There is a significant proportion of the population of this country that seems to think that ‘academic’ implies people writing essays about stuff that doesn’t really matter (how many times have you heard a sports commentator describe a consolation goal as being ‘just academic’, as if it would only be of interest to people that write about irrelevant stuff that has no bearing on anything proper in the real world?). Not only are they wrong about vocational courses being in a different category to ‘academic’, but they are also wrong about the courses that are, for want of a better description, ‘essay-based’ being of no use because they don’t teach people how to make widgets.

    The Tory’s love this kind of thing. They seem to think that the best way to compete with China is to out-do them in producing masses of manual labourers willing to work for nothing, ignoring the fact that the Chinese are becoming increasingly technically sophisticated.

  • Graham Evans 20th Aug '13 - 6:54pm

    Maria is absolutely right in saying that that far too little time is devoted to considering the role of FE within the education system. A course with a large vocational element can be undertaken at a wide range of levels, from little more than NVQ level 1 to degree level and beyond. Lots of university courses, particularly in the sciences, engineering and medicine, have always had a large vocational element, so to make a distinction between the academic and the vocational is simply false. What is much more important is how to structure education for those who will not be going to university for whatever reason. Sometimes this will be because they lack the intellectual skills needed to complete a university level course, and sometimes it will be because university life is just not right for them. However the needs of these two groups are potentially very different. The latter require opportunities to progress to high level qualifications, perhaps over the course of a good few years, as was once the case for instance for those entering the nursing profession, or those wanting to become professional engineers (as opposed to engineering craftsmen), or professional accountants (as opposed to accounting technicians). For these people further education colleges may play a part in their achieving their long-term goals. However, the main emphasis of further education must be on those who aspire to NVQ levels 1 to 3. This may involve full-time education, or part-time day release, but it is important not to fall into the German trap of providing too narrow vocational courses, which do not provide the flexibility required of workers in a rapidly changing environment and economy. It is therefore particularly unfortunate that the current head of Ofsted has such a strong antipathy to the further education sector, and rather than recognising the progress made in recent years in improving the education of those young people unsuitable for university education, has instead sought to denigrate the sector by suggesting that the qualifications of these young people have been achieved not by improved teaching but by lowering of standards. Of course much more needs to be done to bring into the education sector those young people who neither aspire to further nor higher education, but the answer to that problem lies not with what goes on post 16, or even post 14, but what happens at 11 or even earlier.

  • This really sounds like a self-interested moan. You may disagree with the rationale for the expansion of higher education and the public spending decisions that went with it. But you should probably also consider the point of the target of the expansion of higher education was to meet the aspirations of the voters at the time where whole families didn’t have anyone who went to uni. In its most primal of terms, no-one in Britain should grow up with an us v them mentality when it comes to publicly funded education.

    I haven’t unfortunately glimpsed the policy paper but I hope it takes account of the gist of current government policy to attempt to free providers from many regulatory and administrative burdens. That is the starting point for changing the system now.

    I believe a fundamentally further shift is required in both higher and further education to make the system work for the student. There is just far too much waste as people who aspire may not achieve qualifications. Those who leave higher education should be able to convert their existing studies into a further education vocational qualification. Those seeking to advance their vocational qualifications should be allowed access to fast track degrees where an employer may sponsor a student through a discounted fee.

    No-one should feel publicly funded education is a dead end but unfortunately there are too many policy bunkers thrown up and not enough policymakers figuring out how to unlock them.

  • Matthew Huntbach 21st Aug '13 - 11:07am


    There is a significant proportion of the population of this country that seems to think that ‘academic’ implies people writing essays about stuff that doesn’t really matter.

    Yes, look at all the articles in the quality newspapers about “going to university” which appear when the A-level results come out, when university term starts, and when UCAS applications for the next year start. Almost always these articles write up “going to university” as meaning moving away from home and studying a subject in which learning will largely involve reading books in libraries, and assessments largely involved writing essays and doing exams in which memorisation dominates. What is happening here is that the journalists on these newspapers are writing up their own university experience – which is usually a traditional arts subject at one of the most prestigious universities – as if it is the norm. It is not.

    Firstly, this sort of article almost never even mentions the pattern of learning and assessment more typical of a science or engineering subject. You never find these articles going on about time spent in labs, assessment which involves mathematical problem solving, work which involves conducting experiments or writing computer code or making something.

    Secondly, you will never find an acknowledgement that going away to university is more common at the upper end of the prestige range, and that lower down most students stay living with their parents and go to a university within commuting distance.

    Thirdly, these articles often go on about a comfortable hedonistic life, in which work takes second place to having fun, and which assumes a residential university setting. Actually the pattern of student life they assume, isn’t one most university students now have. If you come from the sort of wealthy privileged background most journalists come from, you can afford to waste your time at university “having fun”, because your background will always get you somewhere. These article are badly misleading, they don’t cover the sort of work pattern that is needed to do well in many subjects, and they damage students by giving the impression it’s not necessary to work hard if you are at university.

  • For many people, university is a fantastic opportunity, and while it is often a lot of hard work with full-time hours (certainly for many STEM subjects) the chance to learn and progress very fast in a subject opens up career opportunities.

    I feel fees are still a rather punitive way to reward this work and achievement.

  • Sam, don’t worry about having ‘dropped out’. Many people who have dropped out or not gone to university have done very well.
    For a start, they tend to get paid for the work they do, right from the beginning.

  • Ed Shepherd 21st Aug '13 - 6:41pm

    I benefitted from the expansion of Higher Education and I think the expansion was a beneficial policy for society. It meant that thousands of people (young, middle-aged and even elderly on my degree course) had the opportunity to study a subject at degree level. These students were able to realise that there is no big mystery to studying a degree subject and that degree studies should not be just the preserve of an elite who largely come from a privileged background, These students from under-privileged backgrounds had the chance to show that they are every bit as able to learn as people who come from backgrounds from where entry to an elite university is considered the norm. Thousands of these “expansion” students now apply their learning in their personal life and in the workplace. For instance, the chief legal officer at the company I work for studied at university with me. He did not come from the kind of privileged background that would have easily led him to a place at one of the old universities. He had to go to one of the ex-polytechnics that the ignorant like to disparage. It led him to the position he is in now. Certainly, university degrees are not the right course for everyone and a degree certainly does not always help in finding work but the expansion of higher education closed an important education-gap between the weathty and the poor within society. The expansion will one day be rightly seen as promoting the “fairer” society that LibDem politicians keep saying they want.

  • You really need to fix the issues you have caused with the continuation of academies, it’s amazing how many schools have been transferred into private hands. You now know why education has had a ring-fence around it’s funds, so it gives the more money to private companies who have opened academies. Over the next few years its time to watch how many academies fail and get taken over by private companies like Edison. Also we must watch out for rising costs in education that will be funneled into private companies hands from taxpayers. Lets hope that our education standards don’t slip as these companies try to make more profit.

    In the terms of higher education whoever is in government, I see the same thing happening to colleges and universities they will be handed over to private hands. Then people will be charged more for higher education and all the higher costs will be covered by government loans. These loans will be repaid back at higher rates as soon as the student loan book is sold off and the loans will be never written off. This will in turn will cause a widening gap between the rich and poor, as the poor will struggle to get higher education of any kind and well paid jobs. That’s if they not forced to do time in the army or work below the minimum wage by a coalition government that’s disguised new slave labour as training for work.

  • Matthew Huntbach 22nd Aug '13 - 11:10am

    felix dodds

    3) Education

    Hi felix, long time …

    While I take your point, as a university lecturer I find a lot of the talk about human delivered education being replaced by MOOCS to be poor, because it misunderstands how education works, or at least should work. It assumes that education is just about memorising facts, and assessment can easily be automated, because it’s just about demonstrating that memorisation in things like multiple-choice tests.

    Being a Computer Scientists means I’m not nearly so starry-eyed about what computers can do as most people seem to be. Although there are a few from this background who get a buzz out of playing up to others’ starry-eyed view of it. In my experience, certainly in what I teach (computer programming), the most common reason for student failure (apart from laziness) is being caught in that rut of confusing learning with memorisation. Teaching programming properly means human interaction with the student, trying to diagnose just what mental misunderstandings s/he has which are preventing progress. So far, I’ve not seen anything which does a good job at automating this. All the much-lauded MOOCS I’ve seen which claim to be teaching my subject are very much based on the memorise and regurgitate style of teaching and assessment.

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