The general election provided an opportunity for the political parties to demonstrate a vision for the future of education. In the recent past, more has united the parties than divided them, but this election there has been clear water between them – and as we enter an uncertain future, their manifestos signal very different understandings of the nature of the country and its future.
To say this much is already to court controversy. It’s not clear what ‘this country’ means, so we should be clear that the discussion will be about education policy in England. Despite an unexpected election result, it is worth analysing the Conservative and Labour manifestos because their respective policies on education may tell us much about their thinking and – particularly, in fact, in the context of the surprising election result. The Liberal Democrat manifesto does not provide the clear contrasts which illuminate the debate about the visions for this country.
Judgements about these manifestos will of course be coloured by evidence, but also by prognoses for the future. Here my colours need to be pinned to the mast. As a specialist on the education-labour market relationship, it is quite clear to me that the neo-liberal assumption that the primary aim of education is to provide skilled workers for the economy is now in question. It appears that we are now on the cusp of a new form of capitalism in relation to the labour market. Up until now, the prevailing policy assumption of all the political parties has been that there will be increasing demand for high-skilled work and that graduates will be appropriately rewarded for their productivity. It is for this reason that graduates have to pay high fees for what is perceived to be the advantage they gain from the graduate premium. The politicians have been supported in this view by human capital theories that cannot address current conditions: when we disaggregate the returns to graduates we find that it is only those in the top decile of earnings that conform to the profile assumed by human capital theorists.
The assumption has been that the new technological revolution will raise the demand for skilled workers. But if we look at the returns to graduates in the United States – considered the hothouse of the technological revolution – as I have done with Phillip Brown and Sin Yi Cheung, then two points stand out. Firstly, when we track graduate returns between 1970 and 2010, incomes declined for all except those in the top decile. Secondly, and significantly, those with postgraduate degrees, who we may expect to be at the cutting edge of the knowledge economy, have fared in the same way. The UK data from the Labour Force Survey also shows that there is a wide disparity in incomes according to education credentials; interestingly, top A-level students who have not attended university earn more than median graduates.
Craig Holmes and Ken Mayhew at Oxford have documented the increase in the proportion of graduates who now undertake what were formally non-graduate occupations – an indication that there is deficient demand for high-skilled work. At the present time, some 46% of graduates won’t pay back their loans because they won’t earn enough. When that figure reaches 48%, the government will gain no more from the £9,000 fees than when they were set at £3,000. It is clear that, in the light of these data, we need to re-evaluate the idea that technology will raise the demand for skills; it will for some, but it is more likely to re-stratify the occupational structure to reduce the costs of knowledge-based work. This is, of course, one reason why industrial policy is now back on the agenda: left to itself, the market cannot create enough good quality jobs.
In essence, the optimism which accompanies the dominant view has come face to face with new forms of predatory capitalism. Here the drive is to create cut-price brain power, leading to a situation where learning no longer equals earning. In this emerging form of capitalism, the role of education is wholly uncertain, since the rationale for education under neo-liberalism has been that it is an economic investment in which the relationship between education and wages is relatively straightforward. The case for education will now have to be re-stated in very different terms.
If this account is plausible then it speaks to the two most high-profile policies advanced by the Tory and Labour Parties. The most controversial policy in the Conservative manifesto is that of the promotion of grammar schools or, as it says in the manifesto, selective schools. Such a policy is a clear example of how individual biographies and anecdote have trumped evidence. The research evidence against selective education which led to the creation of the comprehensive system was led by Jean Floud and my friend and colleague A.H. Halsey in the 1950s. They demonstrated how inequitable the 11+ system was. Since then, with more developed databases, the early claims they made have been fully substantiated, notwithstanding the use of questionable data in the Conservative Manifesto. The purpose of the reintroduction of selectivity was ostensibly to promote social mobility; in Britain, as in other neo-liberal societies, destinations are indeed still determined by origins. The debate over this issue has been dismal because it has been assumed that education alone can promote social mobility, ignoring the labour market conditions necessary to turn educational credentials into opportunities. Indeed, data from the United States suggests that the demand for high-skilled work for the younger generation is now in decline. For those of us who have a commitment to evidence-led policy, such a manifesto pledge suggests that reason is not a dominant principle in education policy. It is probably the case that the election has put paid to this pledge, but it nonetheless tells us something about the nature of a party that aspires to turn the clock back.
A similar claim has been made with respect to the Labour mainfesto’s commitment to abolish tuition fees. Commentators on the left, including The Guardian, as well as those from the right have condemned this pledge as, at best, advantaging the already privileged among the younger generation. That would be a reasonable claim if the labour market reflected the assumptions of human capital theory: as we have seen, it doesn’t. In the light of the scenario I have sketched, this Labour policy looks enlightened. As the economic returns to education decline for many, we can expect a battle royale over the role and cost of education. Given the uncertainties that this generation are confronting, the best that our society can do is to provide young people with a good education, which gives them the mental flexibility to see that other worlds and other ways of doing things are possible. This, of course, is what lies behind the European states that do not charge fees and look upon our obsession with the private rates of return from a university education with a degree of curiosity, if not outright scepticism.
This not only applies to university education but to the kind of technical education that FE colleges can provide. It is almost impossible to understand the savage cuts to FE colleges that have taken place under austerity policies. Both parties have something to say on this matter. We see this in the Conservative Party’s aim of linking technical education to degree-level studies, a theme consistent with the idea of social mobility. But before we innovate further, we might do better to re-lay the foundations of what we have.
Here, it is important to examine lifelong learning. It has long been the ‘Cinderella’ in education policy and, indeed, under the period of austerity, education has been front-loaded so there are few second chances available for those in their mid-twenties and older. Now, in the light of radical labour market uncertainty it is needed to provide necessary social and economic support for workers. Singapore is already dipping its toes in this pool with Skills Future, which provides every Singaporean citizen with $500 for further education and skills upgrading. The Conservative manifesto is silent on the issue. Labour is committed to lifelong learning, which starts with a return in the early years to Sure Start, and this too is important for the age we are entering. It may create flexibility for parents, who will certainly need it in their paid working lives, as it will for those who have caring responsibilities that extend above and beyond their children.
When these two manifestos are compared, it is clear which one has the most comprehensive account of educational policy. Of course, those on the right will suggest that this judgement is based on sector self-interest, since I am a university professor – but that is too easy. The points I’ve raised need to be addressed rather than dismissed. It is unclear on what basis Labour have made these commitments and whether they can be paid for, given the straitening times we are entering. But the implications are clearly forward-looking.
For the Conservatives, all appears well with the education system we now have with some tinkering at the edges, mainly in terms – yet again – of qualifications. We might expect Labour’s manifesto to be more radical, but it is squarely in the social democratic tradition, as would be well understood in Germany, for example. There is no suggestion of integrating the public schools with the state sector. There is no attempt to abolish school choice, and there is only a mention of questioning the testing culture, which clearly benefits the political class but neither students nor schools. In these respects, whatever the merits of the debates that no doubt will be forthcoming, this is a moderate set of policies. They may have their roots in the 1980s, but – either by design or happy accident – they are relevant to our future.