Britain may be jumping on the higher-ed reform bandwagon, thanks to a new plan proposed by Labour Party MP John Denham. Rather than give students loans to attend college that prove difficult to pay back, the government would partner with businesses to jointly pay for the education of young employees in relevant fields. The Guardian has the details:
The degrees would carry no fees and the in-work students would receive a wage or training allowance from their employer during their period of study.Denham, who will outline the plans in a lecture to the Royal Society of Arts on 16 January, says the government’s financial contribution will be found by redirecting money currently spent on writing off unpayable student debt from fees and maintenance loans, and on student grants.“Graduates in England face the world’s most expensive public higher education, yet too many degrees don’t deliver what students or employers want,” he will say. “Huge sums of public money are wasted writing off unpayable debts, and paying living costs for students who would rather have jobs.”
If it works as promised, the plan could be a win-win-win. Students can earn a degree debt-free while gaining work experience at the same time; businesses can ensure their young employees have the skills they need; and the government can cease spending public money on programs that often leave students mired in debt and unprepared for the workforce. As always, the devil is in the details, and there are plenty of reasons to question whether this program would, in fact, work as promised, but overall this proposal is at least moving in the right direction. It has been clear for some time that higher ed, both in Europe and the US, has become somewhat removed from the evolving requirements of the workforce, and the four-year, residential college model requires young people to spend years removed from the working world at a key developmental period in their lives. This looks like an interesting attempt to address this issue.That being said, we don’t want the focus of education to be shaped by people who think in purely instrumental terms, people who think of “education” merely as “training.” In our view, there is a genuine need for serious liberal education, which not only teaches people how to “learn to learn” and adjust to a changing world, but also prepares them as citizens ready to take a meaningful part in the life of their times. But unless universities can be proactive about finding a way to blend liberal education with the more vocational learning many students want in a cost-effective way, we risk losing it altogether.