In the first two posts of this 3-parter I explained why I feel the current tuition fees and student loans system encourages profligate spending on preserving the status quo and set out the case for a more modern approach to tertiary education, funded by a tax on the rising profits of automation.
Technology advances and the rise of artificial intelligence (AI) will have a huge impact on society over the next few decades. Some careers will disappear entirely, or change so dramatically that people will need to undertake significant reskilling several times in their lifetime.
Thus the third scandal of the current system is the calamitous decline — more than 50% since 2010 — in the numbers taking part-time degree courses as fees have soared. This is where the most disadvantaged students, those who never felt able to take time off for a full-time course, are particularly hardest hit.
Yet just at a time when we need to ramp up the availability of educational opportunities for more mature students, the sector is in freefall.
At the same time, cuts to maintenance grants have made it more difficult for students from less well-off households to fund needed education. And all the focus on university education — largely a middle-class pursuit — ignores the dearth of quality apprenticeships and technical education for non-professional careers and for others who choose not to sign up for a traditional university education. As LibDemVoice contributor Joe Bourke recently wrote on adult education and skills training:
What is missing, however, from much of the debate over tuition fees has been the ongoing training needs of the 60%+ of school leavers who are unable or choose not to take a degree course.
This is the scandalously reactionary structure of the current system. And yet this is exactly what Labour is promising to institutionalize by its pledge to cancel the student loans system and restore state funding of tuition fees. There is no mention from Labour of how the system should be reformed to encourage innovation in the delivery of undergraduate education, and to cater for the new adult education needs of a changing world.
A more radical policy
That’s why I believe it’s incumbent upon Liberal Democrats to develop a more radical policy that sweeps away the triple scandals of the current system. We should replace it with one that puts more direct control into the hands of students while still retaining government oversight and accountability of how institutions use that money.
This new system should encourage innovation in how education is delivered to adults throughout their working life, rather than rigidly perpetuating a warts-and-all model that’s desperately in need of modernisation. And most of all, we should ensure that more resources reach those who are most disempowered, especially those whose life chances have been harmed by shifts in the industrial landscape or by the rise of intelligent automation.
Therefore I would propose the creation of a lifetime education fund for every school-leaver, which each individual can choose to draw down over the course of their life to invest in educational opportunities. Those who wish to take a traditional campus university degree course could use the majority of their fund to offset tuition fees and serve as a maintenance grant. Others might choose a less costly remote study course or apprenticeship option, setting aside a larger pot to draw down later on for reskilling or a career switch.
And much to my amazement, as I was launching into the final edit of this third post today, I discover that this is pretty much the policy favoured by soon-to-be leader Vince Cable, according to an interview with the Guardian published just a few hours ago:
His big idea is to introduce ‘learning accounts’ – grants for everyone over the age of 18, regardless of whether or not they go to university, to cash in as part payment on a degree or some other form of training, or to be reserved for study in later life. Cable thinks it would be democratic, economically manageable, and would both protect the income of universities and keep down student debt.
I’m very happy to find I agree with Vince, who says, “We need something bold like that.” Yes — country and party.