Education: Labour earmarks elite education for the rich

FRFI 170 December 2002 / January 2003

The seven-tier education system
Beacon schools, specialist schools, city academies, faith schools, foundation schools, city technology colleges and bog-standard comprehensives. These labels show how secondary schooling in England and Wales has been deliberately broken up and fragmented to disguise the growing divide between the educational chances of rich and poor children. For the last five and a half years Labour has set out to destroy any notion of fairness and equal distribution and has encouraged competition, rivalry and the pecking order into educational provision by the state. Now, by floating the idea of ‘top-up fees’ for university, the DfES is planning to extend this disintegration of state provision into higher education. The nearer the top of the league table of results, research etc, a university is, the more it could charge. Posh universities would cost a lot more than bog-standard ones. In addition to the present £1,100-a-year course fees, Labour ‘top-up’ fees would mean that universities could charge for the full cost of a degree course. £3,000 a year looks a likely average but some universities could pull in as much as £10-15,000 per student per year.

A discussion paper from the Department for Education and Skills (DfES) spins a few ideas as useful sound bites for government spokespersons. Since graduates earn 40% more on average than workers without a degree higher education should be viewed as an investment. Why should dustmen subsidise doctors? Can we be sure that the tax payers’ £5 billion for universities is being well spent, and how come students can afford to smoke and drink? And millionaire’s daughter Education Minister Margaret Hodge reminds students that ‘there is no such thing as a free lunch’.

Student spending is cut
This Labour government set as one of its numerous targets that 50% of the 18-30 age group would go into higher education by 2010. It stands now at about 38% and Chancellor of the Exchequer Prudence Brown will not finance this sector further. Since 1989 funding per student has fallen by 37% in real terms while student numbers have almost doubled. There is currently a £10 billion shortfall in the university funding system. The consumers (students and parents) must therefore pay for education services. However, even Blair knows that the working class cannot afford private school prices (Roedean Girls now costs £20,000 a year for boarders). They will therefore create a whole menu of higher educational institutions, ranging from the cheap and cheerful, sponsored by high street corporations, to the most expensive and elite, also sponsored by businesses including tobacco firms and the pharmaceutical industry but with less vulgarity. By aiming for the 50% target Labour will claim the prize of running an open, free and educated society. The unequal provision that characterises the secondary school system will merely be continued in the universities.

We know that British society is more unequal at this time than ever before. A recent report shows that 53% of the 600,000 children living in inner London are being brought up below the government’s official poverty line. We can be sure that it is their schools that are hard pressed to provide good standards of resources, class size and a stable teaching force. The children of the unskilled working class have no more chance now of going to university than they did in 1912, accounting for about 12% of the intake.

Top up your IQ
Michael Young’s book The Rise of the Meritocracy 1870-2033: an essay on education and equality was published in 1958. Young invented the term ‘meritocracy’ with the meaning IQ + effort = MERIT. It was a satire, a joke in which the idea of merit is mocked as negative and destructive for the future of education. Yet the word is embraced today by New Labour as a cover and justification for privilege. Over-educated New Labour cronies who had a university education paid for by the state are not clever enough to see a joke if it jumped up and hit them in the face. In the dry tones of a parliamentary report the book opens with the sentence: ‘What was the connection between the gutting of the Ministry for Education and the attempt on the life of the Chairman of the TUC?’

President of the Oxford Students’ Union, Will Straw, son of Jack Straw (former student leader, Home Secretary and currently Foreign Secretary) likes the idea of a ‘meritocracy’. Speaking against top-up fees for universities he claims that Oxford is not an elitist institution, but a meritocracy attracting the brightest and the best. ‘Meritocracy’ is a convenient lie for the ruling class to justify education rationing and stinks of the arrogance of the elite.

The recent Youth Cohort Study published for the DfES shows that the class divide in education is as wide as ever it was. In Britain today a bright child born into a poor family will still do worse at school than a child with low intelligence but rich parents. Even given the dubious use of intelligence tests the conclusion is clear: money matters to buy educational advantage. Whether this country ends up with ‘top-up’ fees, meaning that students have to pay for their university courses, or a graduate tax, we will see the class divisions of society clearly expressed through the differing layers of educational institutions that money can buy. And none of us will be kidded that there is anything democratic or just about that.
Susan Davidson