Edumacation, Edumacation, Edumacation

Higher education, solved.
Higher education, solved.

 

The Guardian trails a new Labour proposal for “debt-free degrees” for up to 50,000 students per year, an idea which may well end up in the Labour party’s 2015 general election manifesto. The Guardian’s political editor, cheerleading the idea, claims that this scheme will “tailor university education more closely to the needs of business and young people”. Of course, it doesn’t take long for the enquiring mind to begin picking holes in the concept.

From the top:

Under the scheme, people in employment will be able to study for a degree relevant to their existing and future work, with the costs being paid jointly by government and their employers. The degrees would carry no fees and the in-work students would receive a wage or training allowance from their employer during their period of study.

There is a world of difference between a short course designed to brush up an employee’s computing skills, or even a slightly longer and more involved course in a field such as project management, and the rigorous demands of a university degree. Whilst an employer may see the immediate short-medium term benefit in paying for their staff to undertake the former on company time, it would be a generous boss indeed who would take the dual hit of lost working time and course fees to fund a whole degree.

The costings for the proposal are worked out with the astonishing level of detail and realism that we have all come to expect from Labour under Ed Miliband’s leadership:

Denham, who will outline the plans in a lecture to the Royal Society of Arts on 16 January, says the government’s financial contribution will be found by redirecting money currently spent on writing off unpayable student debt from fees and maintenance loans, and on student grants.

I have read this sentence through several times, and if it makes any more sense to a reader than it does to me, I would love to have the translation in plain English. You don’t “spend money” writing off debts from unrepayable student loans. And if John Denham, the policy’s champion, is suggesting that the £3bn shortfall between expected and actual repayments on student loans over the course of the next parliament can be easily resolved by tracking down students who have moved abroad and shaking them down for money, or by waving a magic wand and making graduates suddenly earn income above the £21,000 threshold so as to become eligible to make repayments, then I will take this as just another sad sign that Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition has no grip on economic reality or the way that public finances work. Whenever we are told that the money for some policy “will be found by redirecting money currently spent on…”, I take it as seriously as I would if Denham told me that he would fund his policy through “efficiency savings”.

There is then, of course, the question of the nature and value of these new degrees, were they to be taught in the classroom. If, as the Guardian claims, they are to be closely “tailor[ed] … more closely to the needs of business”, the degrees are likely to be highly specialised, with much less transferability to other fields of work than more generalist degrees. Indeed, any sensible employer acting in their own interests would be almost certain to demand this – if you are going to pay for someone to get a degree, it is in your interests as an employer to make sure that that degree will be of maximum use to the employee whilst they are working for you, and as little use to them as possible when they come to take that degree and use it elsewhere – so as to act as a deterrent to leaving.

But seeing only the positives, Denham imagines that business will embrace the idea of paying for their employees’ qualifications:

Denham says the proposals will prove attractive to many businesses as they will save money on recruitment and retention, having trained handpicked staff. They will also save on in-house training costs. Employers and students will also be able to shape the courses to ensure they are relevant.

But apparently under the precursor to this policy, employers were expected to contribute £3000 towards tuition costs, and would also be expected to pay a wage or training allowance to their employees as they studied “intensively over two years” or longer. I find it hard to imagine that any savings on recruitment, retention or in-house training will be sufficient to make incurring these expenses an attractive option.

The Guardian further joins the Labour Party in proclaiming that the new policy proposal is in direct response to demand from industry and the private sector, as the article continues:

The ideas are likely to be welcomed by business groups. Last July the CBI said both universities and businesses needed to be more imaginative in the way they provided high-quality education that was relevant to the country’s economic needs, and affordable for young people.

The accompanying link in the Guardian article in support of this assertion does not work, which is probably no accident. Although the CBI and others are right to acknowledge that the standard A-levels and three-year degree route is not sufficient to meet the recruitment needs of the British economy in 2014, this is a long way from a plaintive call for the kind of policy that John Denham wants to enact, and it is sneaky in the extreme for the Guardian to shoehorn in this unrelated quote from the CBI’s policy director:

Katja Hall, CBI policy director, said: “The UK needs to vastly increase the stock of workers with higher-level skills to drive long-term growth and stop us falling behind our competitors. We need to tackle the perception that the A-levels and three-year degree model is the only route to a good career.

Acknowledgement of this simple fact by the CBI is a good and obvious thing. Of course rewarding and well-paid careers can be achieved through many routes, and alternatives to the standard path should always be sought and encouraged where they could be of greater benefit to people. But to take this broad and nonspecific statement made by the CBI last year and try to bend it in support of a specific (and particularly ill-thought out Labour policy) is manipulative and disingenuous.

It does not bring me great joy to pick apart a policy supposedly intended to address a real problem – a significant and growing skills gap between the demands of industry and the abilities of those entering the workforce. But this proposal appears completely unworkable to me. In order to get business to embrace it in any large number, it seems to me that the the conditions would have to be so onerous – in terms of the narrowness of  the degree (more akin to a vocational qualification) and the period of time to which the employee is beholden to work for the employer following graduation – that no student in their right mind would sign up. And if Labour do get into government in 2015 and enact the policy in a way that is remotely appealing to potential students, the cost to the employer would be such that very few firms (aside from those wishing to curry special favour with the government in order to achieve other ends) would be likely to subscribe.

If anyone finds my thinking to be flawed, or can argue that this Labour proposal is anything other than an empty, unworkable vessel designed to launch the phrase “debt-free degree” into the public consciousness ahead of the next election, I would be very keen to hear from you.

Use the comments section, as usual.

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