Nelson Mandela said that education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world, and he was right.
In today’s global knowledge economy, high-quality skills aren’t just the engines of Britain’s wealth and growth; they give each of us choices about what kind of life we want to live, and the kind of person we want to be.
Without them Britain is a far less socially-mobile place, where each of us is wrapped in a straightjacket of fewer, narrower life choices whether we like them or not. Britain has made huge strides in escaping the straightjacket already. There are more pupils educated in good or outstanding schools than ever before, and we’ve got some of the best universities in the world. But there’s more to do.
For a start, it’s really hard for pupils to know which of the bewildering array of different Higher or Further Education courses would be best for them. In an age where apps give them oodles of information to choose everything else in their lives, from coffee to ketchup, education is a ridiculous exception.
It’s far too hard to know whether the chances of getting a well-paid job after taking this course at that University are better or worse than a similar version at a rival College a few miles away. And if they don’t know that, how can they tell if taking on thousands of pounds of student debts will be worth it on or not?
So let’s give ‘Power to the Pupils’ by shedding more light on the most important decision of most students’ lives so far. Transparently showing which HE and FE courses lead to the best jobs means they will be able to choose the best-value course in whichever subject, and from whichever College or University, is right for them.
They already get, and expect, this for every other decision they take. How can it be right or fair for education to be worse?
Giving ‘power to the pupils’ will transform Universities and Colleges for the better too. The best-value courses will grow, because more students will apply, while poor-value ones will either have to improve quickly, or shrink and close. Whether you’re a student or a taxpayer, all of those options look great.
Even better, it will rebalance our heavily-skewed Higher and Further Education system. For years, people have complained that too many pupils are pushed towards poor-value Higher Education courses which aren’t really right for the lives they want to lead, when they’d do far better at a high-value Further Education course instead. Giving power to the pupils would reset this imbalance effortlessly, by arming pupils with the facts to make fully-informed choices for the first time.
We could help student debts too. If more students choose high-value but cheaper Further Education courses instead of longer, more expensive University qualifications, then the total amount of student debts will fall, and what’s left will become easier for students to repay as well. We could reinvest the savings in scholarships for students from less well-off families, or in grants for older career-switchers in subjects like nursing, where the prospect of taking on student debts later in life alongside a mortgage and kids is frightening away much-needed new recruits.
Last but not least, students can’t choose the best-value courses if they can’t compare what they’re buying. But that’s impossible for University courses because, unlike every other serious qualification in the UK, the same grades in the same subjects don’t mean the same things. A City and Guilds qualification in plumbing is worth the same to a student or a potential employer no matter which FE college you studied at. A particular grade at A level or GCSE English is worth the same whether you went to school in Truro or Tadcaster. But a 2:1 or 1st in English or History from Oxford or Cambridge isn’t worth the same as one from most former polytechnics. That can’t be right.
It makes it far harder for students to spot and avoid low-value courses, and choose high-value ones instead. It assumes that older Universities with long-established reputations are automatically better than new ones, whether their teaching and courses deserve it or not.
There are a few, honourable exceptions like the Russell Group Universities where standardisation is better, but not nearly enough. If Universities pledged to make qualifications from similar courses equal no matter where students studied, it would be revolutionary.
Pupils who don’t get into their first choice college would still fulfil their potential by getting equally good qualifications while studying somewhere else. It would show students which Further and Higher Education colleges teach best, by comparing incoming qualifications to outgoing grades for the first time. And it would make Britain a far more socially-just, openly meritocratic, mobile society where you’ve got the same life chances whether your father was a Duke or a doorman.
It might not be exactly what Nelson Mandela said, but it was certainly what he meant.