Today, engulfing all but perhaps the ultra-elite UK universities is an education market, subject to the same conditions as any other capital market. Despite the availability of funding, prospective students are psychologically comparing potential debt with career prospects, and when money is so intrinsically involved, the whole process inevitably becomes fraught and panicked. So how can the government relieve this tension from the education market and return it to what it has traditionally been – an academically-driven ‘bazaar’ isolated form the economics of capital markets?
The Marketization of Education
The Robbins Report of 1963 marked an expansion of higher education, recommending the transformation of Colleges of Advanced Technology into fully-functioning Universities. It was then that many of the top-quality institutions that flourish today found new life, although many had existed in various forms for years previously; they included Bath, York, Loughborough, Warwick and Sussex. Student numbers increased dramatically between 1955 and 1970, leading onto another expansion with the abolition of the Polytechnic post-1992 and number of UK university charters exceeding 100. Already, the number of places available and the funding required to prop up the industry was beginning to place structural pressures on higher education.
Tony Blair’s education policy didn’t help such matters. Labour’s student numbers targets were aimed too high, and funding began to become a larger problem. Tuition fees were introduced in 1998, then increased in 2006 before the recent hike in 2010. The mass-encouragement of higher education and the constraints on funding and places had created a capital market, similar to that of UK masters degrees but on a much larger scale.
Medicine for Students
It is becoming more and more widely accepted that education for the sake of career prospects – which is more common than ever at higher level – must incur some sort of financial charge, and while the coalition’s educational policies have induced criticism, there is not a lot more to be done without draining government funds. The questions should be: how can the government reform the system to make the ride through university application as smooth as possible for sixth-form and college students? How does the government take away the strife of a capital market without deconstructing the market itself?
The answer to this may be a reform to the further education system. Michael Gove has already discussed this; there are plans to remove the AS-Level examination system and replace it with a two-year A-Level format seen in the recent past. In some analysts’ opinions, this won’t make any positive difference to the structure of university applications at all; in fact, due to having no material assessment, apart from coursework (which is also in jeopardy), to apply with, universities may be accepting students on grounds fabricated by teachers, schools and parents more so than ever.
Current Constraints and Possible Solutions
As all university students know, the release of results in August of the year of degree-commencement is one of the most intense days in the contemporary, young scholar’s life. For those that enter into the Clearing system, a true sense of what an anarchic, free market is comes to light. It is an arena created by uncertainty and over/under prediction where those with unexpected grades fight with each other, and with universities, for places on courses due to start around a month into the future. There has been talk of compulsory gap years to eliminate this system, although this is a rather illiberal way of restructuring university applications.
Instead, Gove might perhaps consider restructuring the A-Level system in a different manner. By reducing the length of A-Level study to 18 months (e.g. September 2013 to February 2015 rather than to June 2015), and by increasing its intensity by around 33%, the system may be given the time it needs (e.g. February-August 2015) for marks to be determined, universities to be applied to, and for places to be confirmed – all of this occurring after final exams rather than before and during. In this manner, although academic work may be more pressurised than previously, the university application system has around six times as much time to arrange itself in the best interests of its ‘customers’. Those students who took gap years in the current system will understand the benefits of applying to university with grades intact – this could be extended to all students if the above reform is introduced.
In a world puzzled by globalisation and competition, there is little to stop education being pulled into the capitalist world economy. The trick will be to minimalize the effects of such economics on both the producers (the universities, who are not as evil as the political left may think) and the consumers (the students). Universities must be comforted to be able to offer courses and resources as irrespective of money as is possible; students must be encouraged to attend university for the right reasons and within reasonable means. Educational reform in secondary and higher education, especially now attendance in school or training is compulsory until the age of 18, will be vital to softening the effects of capitalism on education.