Freedom News

A Sideways Look: education

(originally published in Freedom, May 2012)
In all the opposition to education cuts and the ramping up of fees, adult education hasn’t had a lot of airtime. There are basically four reasons people want adult education: for basic skills, to learn something they need to improve their job opportunities, for fun and to have a second opportunity.

Birkbeck College in London

Despite pretensions otherwise, all are under attack. Basic skills education is needed for those who didn’t pick up enough at school, or have come from somewhere else where English is not spoken. One of the things the last government did was to talk about the responsibilities of immigrants, but they did at least make a point of funding some teaching of English as a second language (ESL). I know enough people working in this sector to see it as a soft target for swingeing cuts. After all, the people who need to learn English are often marginalised anyway, and a particular area that has been cut has been ESL for women. So we have the situation where the right wing press complain about immigrants not speaking English, their husbands don’t see the need for their wives to communicate outside the home, and the women themselves cannot afford to pay for private lessons.

The other three are usually provided by local council’s adult education departments, FE colleges and a couple of specialist universities such as the Open University (OU) and Birkbeck. Adult education has long been a soft option to cut and every year the list of courses offered seems to get smaller and smaller. The range depends on the facilities, but usually includes languages, arts and crafts and basic skills. Fees depend on whether it is for a qualification or not, but are usually fairly reasonable. As a lot of these courses are aimed at pensioners, though, the timings can be completely impossible for anyone holding down a job.

FE colleges mainly cater for 16–19 year olds, but will run evening classes as well. They are often tied into a range of qualifications and include things that would have been part of apprenticeships when they happened.

The specialist universities were set up to allow working class people, especially those who’d not done well at school, a second chance. Birkbeck is increasing its fees and the OU is tripling fees for its modules, so that the equivalent of an undergraduate year will cost £5,000. Apparently OU management think they will pick up undergraduates who cannot afford to leave home to go to a conventional university. Birkbeck is thinking along the same lines. Both point out in their justifications that the new fees regime brought in by the Tory-LibDem coalition allows for part time students to get loans, which was always the argument against massive fee increases before. Given that a lot of students using these universities are people dipping their toe into higher education for the first time, do they really think many are going to do this at £2,500 for a couple of books, an online forum and a handful of tutorials? It seems to me it is a case of “welcome young undergraduate, piss off older worker.”

One loophole that I intend to exploit when I’m older, if they’ve not closed it, is that if your income doesn’t reach over £21,000 a year you don’t have to repay anything. Now all I have to do is catch up with that ever-increasing retirement age.


(This article was originally published in Freedom, May 2012)

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