Don’t underestimate the university of life


Tony Blair famously stated that ‘education, education, education’ would be his government’s top priority, and it is fair to say that literally billions of pounds were invested into academia during the New Labour years.

Undoubtedly, some of this spend was absolutely essential. Decades of neglect, particularly in the North of England, meant that many primary and secondary schools were in an antiquated state by 1997.

The need for a huge spend to improve the infrastructure of education in our country did not come soon enough, and it is now the exception rather than the rule to see run down, dilapidated, inner city state schools.

The loosening of the grip of Local Education Authorities over the management of schools, the introduction of Academies and the shift in emphasis on the importance of schooling were positive contributions that the Blair government made to the education agenda.

However, as was the case in many areas where public sector spending was dramatically increased by New Labour, the government failed to maximise the impact of its investment.

Most obviously, many schools failed to modernise, both in terms of management and in terms of grasping the opportunity of flexibility to learning and the curriculum that Blair, if not all of his colleagues, wanted to see.

There was also a failure to introduce a more diverse range of teaching and teaching methods; the working practices of those in higher education was a joke; and the quality of tutors across the piece remained, at best, average.

Most disappointingly for me though was the government’s obsession with University. Further education is always to be encouraged, but why this must always end with students donning a cap and gown is beyond me. Far too many people who were not going to benefit from University were encouraged to attend. Degrees were being offered in everything from origami to allotment management!

This led to a generation of young people having a university education – but often lacking any basic skills that readied them for the workplace. A degree in common sense was clearly not an option if some of the university graduates I have employed in the past are anything to go by.

There may be good arguments against the introduction of high university fees, however it has put a stop to young people using the years of 18-21 to ‘find themselves’ and have not even one eye on what career they wish to pursue as an adult.

The new agenda that offers good vocational courses, apprenticeships, internships and on-the-job learning is to be welcomed and offers a much more comprehensive learning journey to students. It is also a more attractive environment for more mature learners who are in need of re-training.

The more innovative schools and colleges are now inviting entrepreneurs and business leaders into their classes. Even football clubs are getting involved, the likes of Everton establishing a free school and proving that hard to reach kids do not have to be written off.

Of course, university is always going to be a good option for some – but now graduates are more likely studying subjects that will enhance their career prospects rather than opting for courses that enable them to frequent the student union and city bars most regularly.

Getting an individual ‘work ready’ is not the only thing that education is for. But it is one of them. ‘Education, Skills and Training’ is a better mantra than that of Blair’s which in the end actually translated into ‘University, University, University.’ It was good for the academics, but bad for business.