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Blog post Part of special issue: Transformational Further Education: Empowering People & Communities

Remaking Tertiary Education

Patrick Ainley

The same policy options face Tertiary F&HE as face Primary and Secondary schools. They were recently presented in two lectures by Baroness Tessa Blackstone, former-Labour Higher Education Minister, and Baroness Alison Wolf, long-time Tory education advisor.

Wolf is now a cross-bench peer and presents her latest report for a Lib Dem think-tank. It follows her 2015 pamphlet Heading for the precipice that concluded both FE and HE funding are ‘unsustainable’. As a way out she now advocates offering sub-degree qualifications in both colleges and universities as a way to reduce the undergraduate numbers.

digitisation and deregulation lay waste the core middle-class constituency of HE

This is heresy for teachers committed to changing lives and society through education, like Blackstone, Master of London University’s adult college from 1987-1997. Then Birkbeck and other HE providers offered chances of upward social mobility from working-class jobs to middle-class careers. In this century, these chances have become vanishingly small as digitisation and deregulation lay waste the core middle-class constituency of HE.

So, despite the New Labour government’s investment in human capital to increase the supply of ‘skills’ (ie. qualifications), more graduates have not generated more graduate-level occupations. Today, a degree is necessary for previously non-graduate employment, displacing others into more precarious work, often insecure and part-time. To avoid this, record numbers have applied to universities despite the Coalition government tripling fees.

The Coalition attempted to reverse New Labour’s widening participation to HE not only by making it more expensive but also harder to get in, following Wolf’s recommendation of reducing vocational qualifications in schools. Neither measure produced the intended reduction in undergraduate numbers: 1/ because most universities are dependent for their survival on fee-bearing students, so most applicants will get in somewhere; 2/ because the level of fee/loan repayment was set too high at £21,000, so students take on debt knowing they may never repay it.

The current Conservative market-led solution therefore aims to raise fees still higher while altering the repayment terms and differentiating institutions. In addition, private universities will be subsidised to provide cheaper and shorter ‘degrees’. Wolf’s ostensibly non-market solution similarly expands sub-degree programs in colleges and universities by giving ‘a uniform and unified tertiary funding entitlement for all adults, which they can use when and as they like’ (p.43). These ‘technical’ options will complement the apprenticeships Wolf also favours but criticises for diluting quality by sticking to Cameron’s target of 3-million-apprenticeships-by-2020.

Reintroducing secondary moderns is also intended to lead on to apprenticeships. This leaves grammars cramming their sixth formers into universities, a route preferred by all those advocating vocational training for other people’s children. Wolf shares this preference, not recognising how disheartening endless cramming is for students and teachers alike. Yet, even after completing their lengthening ‘student journeys’, fewer graduates gain access to careers, even after postgraduate programmes and internships.

Wolf’s suggestion of a funding entitlement to tertiary learning taken as and when required might therefore appear a relief to many school-leavers pressured into thinking they must ‘go to uni’ or die!’ It might also rescue FE from more mergers and rationalisations. But predictably school leavers will reject Wolf’s sub-degree alternative – just as they reject apprenticeships – since they know they need ‘a proper degree’ to get a proper job.

The weakness of both proposals is they do not recognise the UK has become a largely post-industrial and service-based economy. Accompanied by persistent austerity, the government’s ‘industrial strategy’ invites a race to the bottom with countries outside any EU regulation. The solution cannot be to reinvent the vocational route at tertiary level as Wolf urges. Nor to ‘raise standards’ in ‘grammar schools for all’, academically preparing for the ‘comprehensive higher education’ Blackstone advocates. This misconceives the vocational nature of tertiary learning, including the academic vocation. It also Betrays… Young People (Ainley, 2016) with the debased qualifications teachers are compelled to inflict upon them whilst they are warehoused in colleges and universities.

Instead of these two sides of the same coin, teachers and students should raise the question of a socially useful education with discussion at all levels from primary to postgraduate schools about how education can develop individuals to apply their imaginations and abilities to resolve the crisis of their generation and sustain the future of society.


Ainley, P. (2016) Betraying a Generation, How Education is Failing Young People. Bristol: Policy Press.

Blackstone, T. (2016) Universities: some policy dilemmas. Gresham Lecture 27/6

Wolf, A. (2016) Remaking Tertiary Education: can we create a system that is fair and fit for purpose? London: Education Policy Institute first annual lecture 14/11