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Higher Ed Transformation
UK Labour Party Proposes Debt-Free Degree

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.

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  • qet

    Don’t forget about Ye Olde Piper & Tune, the pub that will be serving this student clientele. This is a Labour proposal. Can you imagine: there will have to be strict gender, racial and other quotas for these “free” degrees. Assuming the “education” (sorry, but nearly every term needs setting off by quote marks, not scare quotes but quotes indicating the substance of the concept indicated by the word may not be what it traditionally has been) is not just vo-tech but includes some humanities and social sciences, can you imagine a Labour government (or even the present Conservative/Liberal coalition) permitting students to take courses that don’t emphasize white privilege, the prevalent rape culture, the oppression by the English of brown peoples all over the world, the environmental crimes committed daily by the West on the Rest of the World,, the social injustice perpetrated by each and every white European male—living or dead–just by getting out of bed every morning, just by reason of his mere existence? No–the humanities will be too much a battle ground, and any such proposal must eventually limit itself to STEM and probaby just a subset of that. After all, I once read a complaint by a Latino activist that the schools in Latino-dominated communities should teach “Aztec” math, that Western math was just a continuation of the North’s oppression of the South. This kind of thing will infect the UK proposal. Why don’t we all just welcome the return of Craft Guilds and apprenticeships, which served Western economies well except for a small slice of our history of about one century.

  • Andrew Allison

    There seems to be an inconsistacy in your thinking here. Earlier today you wrote about the excess of PhDs. In the past you have written about the over-abundance of higher education and its cost, and yet here you applaud a proposal to add fuel to the fire.

  • Jim__L

    If Western Civ isn’t worth teaching — emphasizing! — then Humanities aren’t worth teaching.

  • Boritz

    It would be bad if the commercial world remade the academy in its image. However, we are presently so far from this state that the pendulum needs to swing a little bit in the direction of practicum. Professors are often so poorly informed about the world outside of academics even in their own field that they couldn’t give students the kind of real-world preparation they need even if they wanted to. This kind of insulation can’t be abided in fields like medicine and dentistry where graduates need to have a solid grounding in the real world from day one on the job. For most fields the educational experience provides no such grounding and the graduates spend years learning what they need to know on-the-job. Improving this situation would definitely be a good thing.

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