Coherent? Far from It

The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE, December 11, 2014 | Go to article overview

Coherent? Far from It


Despite the introduction of postgraduate loans, education funding policy remains a puzzle, says Nigel Carrington

Should we be grateful for the postgraduate loans system announced in the chancellor's Autumn Statement? Well, yes - but only up to a point.

The withdrawal of postgraduate funding has been catastrophic for aspiring postgraduates from the UK and elsewhere in the European Union. It is good to have something in its place. The new measure explicitly recognises the impact of postgraduate qualifications on employability and lifetime earnings.

But by restricting postgraduate loans to the under-30s, the government continues its puzzling, piecemeal approach to education funding. Many postgraduate subjects require people to demonstrate some experience. For example, about half of postgraduates in the art and design sector are aged over 30. So, once again, we have a policy that does not respond to the sector's needs. It is probably just a crude way to cap postgraduate funding. It is also an incentive for young people to stay in education until the labour market picks up. And that appears to be all the thought that has gone into it.

The government is capable of grown-up, end-to-end policymaking. It has even achieved this with its aggressive focus on science, technology, engineering and mathematics. For all its over-assertiveness, the focus on STEM subjects is obviously designed as part of a policy to rebuild Britain's industrial base. It takes one group of disciplines all the way from 12+ to well-resourced research universities, or to apprenticeships and jobs.

It is not perfect, wreaking collateral damage on the arts and humanities. You wonder where the government imagines industrial designers will come from if arts aren't taught at school. Nevertheless, you can see the point it is aiming for. But that isn't true of the wider policy landscape.

We will all have found some favourite passage in last month's Higher Education Commission report, Too Good to Fail: The Financial Sustainability of Higher Education in England, and its genteel lambasting of the economic illiteracy of the current higher education funding system. Overall, the fees regime, with its 30-year horizon for loan defaults, is the sort of enormous burden on future taxpayers that has recently become so unpopular in public sector pensions. …

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