Magazine article The Spectator

The Education Swindle

Magazine article The Spectator

The Education Swindle

Article excerpt

OUR education system is in a mess, but not because classes are too large or teaching child-centred, or schools badly managed or under-resourced. Our system of education is in a mess because our idea of education is puerile. The most poorly educated are, no doubt, abominably poorly educated, but it is by no means the worst of it. The worst of it is not that the badly educated are so uneducated, but that the best are.

The problem with education in modem Britain - the essential, intractable problem - is not at the bottom but the top; it is the problem of an insufficiently educated governing class - the class that staffs Parliament, the press, the universities - a class with an uneducated idea of education. Education, ever since the original Academy, has always been known to be different from training. Philosophy came into being when Socrates went around Athens as one conscious of knowing little, looking for someone who knew more. The men Socrates talked to, those who had a techne, that is, turned out not to know more than he did because they knew only their skills.

The distinction between liberal education and useful knowledge persisted strongly when the universities developed in the 12th and 13th centuries. For eight centuries afterwards, European universities were endowed as centres of piety, learning and thought. Nations got rich, then used some of their wealth to endow universities. The `red-brick' universities in the north of England were founded after the brass had been made out of the muck, not to make more brass.

Then, about 40 years ago, we began to understand that, all along, we had been putting the cart before the horse: you didn't make money in order to afford an education, you got educated in order to make money. Education wasn't distinct from training in remunerable skills; it was the same thing. Education wasn't to do with religion and virtue; it was a service industry. As the Charter for Higher Education of 1993 puts it, universities 'deliver' a 'service' to 'customers', students and businesses, which 'buy' education and research. Education is directly, practically useful. It's an investment. It is vital for economic competitiveness/survival in the new millennium. It is necessary/essential for regional growth and national wealth creation. It promotes/facilitates/enhances the national economy and the skills/highly skilled workforces needed by the labour markets of the information/global economy. Education serves tiger economies, Pacific rims, Nafta, EU, WTO. And so on, and so on.

So, says Gordon Brown, `economic success tomorrow will depend on investing in our schools today'. David Blunkett says, `Our university system is in crisis. Our competitors in North America and the Far East have more young people going into higher education.' Three years ago Tony Blair summed it all up with `Education, education, education'. What he meant was `Money, money, money'. Mr Blair values education, but only for the effect he thinks it has on GDP.

He thinks not just that there is an economic case for it, but that the economic case is the case for it. He thinks that, his Education Secretary thinks that, his Chancellor thinks that. The vice-chancellors of all the universities think that, and the editors of all the newspapers think that too. There is no one in either the Liberal or the Labour party who does not think that; and if there is anyone in the Conservative party, it is someone who dares not say so.

It was the Tories, after all, who created the combined Department for Education and Employment, confident that the point of the one was to cause the other; and it was the Tories who turned all the former polytechnics into universities, by the magic means of calling them universities. (What happened was not that the polytechnics became universities but that both polytechnics and universities went on using a name whose significance had evaporated.)

If, uniquely, education spending is investment, the more time we spend at school and the more it costs the better. …

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