A provocation

If there’s anything guaranteed to get a politician to squirm, it’s asking whether they’re happy for the policies they’re advocating to be applied to their own children. Take outrage at Diane Abbott sending her son to private school, or the infamous scene of John Gummer forcing a burger on his daughter in a bid to reassure the public about food safety. Ministers for universities may get the question more often than most: ‘would you send your child to anything other than the (likely) prestigious university that you went to?’

Most high-flying policymakers in Westminster – from government to think tanks – seem to have enjoyed a very traditional university education

Current universities minister Jo Johnson was stumped by the question on Newsnight in 2015 when it related to the private providers he was promoting, and whether he’d be happy for his children to attend them. But even if better answers had been prepared, it’s hard to believe that government ministers, in Johnson’s case with education at Eton and Oxford, would really be pleased about family members pursuing policies designed for the children of ‘other people’.

There is a rich seam on the ConservativeHome website of articles decrying the expansion of universities. They’re illiberal hotbeds of overpaid lecturers handing out firsts by the fistful to students who don’t deserve to be at university. But there’s also a more positive side of that argument that isn’t necessarily about tearing down the sector: university isn’t for everyone and you might need practical work skills instead.

However, one thing appears to run throughout the debate inside the Conservative Party at the moment and that’s the idea of a real dichotomy between highly-theoretical or impractical academic learning, and vocational and technical education.

Those of us that work in education know that this dichotomy doesn’t really exist, or is at best a gross oversimplification made for political reasons. But it’s repeated in public debates, the media and by policymakers who should know better. The power of this idea is in its simplicity, and there’s a real danger that it could cement itself in the public consciousness forever, if it hasn’t already.

So it’s not really a surprise that the public conception of what a university is, and does, is fairly narrow right now. We know that the most selective universities tend to be more socially exclusive – a situation not entirely of their own making, but replicates patterns in society in which there’s limited social mobility.

Most high-flying policymakers in Westminster – from government to think tanks – seem to have enjoyed a very traditional university education. Similarly, those commentating on education in the media are unlikely to have experience of college higher education, or of vocational programmes, undergraduate courses with placements, work-based learning or cutting-edge simulations of the workplace.

This won’t be true in every case, but I challenge you to look around and see whether among your colleagues there is a material diversity of educational experience.

In itself, an ‘academic’ education is not a bad thing. The challenge for anyone thinking about higher education in the round, is to be open to the diversity of the sector – and embrace it. There really is excellence to be found everywhere, as well as the not-so-excellent experience that universities must work to limit or eliminate. But none of this runs along the lines of the age of the institution, its size, or its mission group membership.

The real problem is the idea that there’s a single way of judging excellence – something the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) – at its best – could confront. But long-held views about prestige are hard to shift and pressure from the old elites is slowly softening TEF’s sharper edges, and its ability to provide a serious challenge to the old order of things. When it comes to the crunch, ministers time and again pull back from risking the reputations or income or their favoured institutions – or forms of educational delivery.

There’s a fundamental problem in the question of whether a universities minister would encourage his or her children to follow a less traditional path. It’s the presumption behind the question that one is ‘better’ than the other in an absolute sense. Surely this discussion is all relative, what is best for the individual given their aspirations, location, prior attainment, aptitude and all manner of other constraints and enablers that makes every student unique.

Is this particular educational option the right one for me, right now? It’s hard enough to know what ‘right’ looks like, given the expectation that a degree will last a lifetime. Your parents might be Eton-educated government ministers or famous journalists, but the decisions are just as complicated and uncertain.

A thorough evaluation of technical and vocational routes as well as traditional academic ones inside and outside the higher education sector is surely needed. It’s no easy task and so let’s not pretend that any of the choices are only right for other people’s children.

This essay has been extracted from our publication, Technical and Professional Excellence: Perspectives on learning and teaching.

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