The idea of a tertiary education system

By Liam Burns –

In his recent book, What Are Universities For? Professor Stefan Collini writes, with obvious sarcasm, ‘it’s hardly surprising that no deathless prose has yet been written about the idea of a tertiary education system’. But perhaps that’s something we should change. We could find great radicalism in a new vision for tertiary education.

What might we mean by this?

Tertiary education literally means ‘third education’ – that which comes after primary and secondary education. But in a world where fourteen year olds go to college and education and training is compulsory up to the age of eighteen, this is much too simple a definition. The term isn’t helped by its relative obscurity, and it can sound remote and technocratic. So instead of taking the word literally, we should take what it represents and give it new meaning, to make sense in today’s world.

It represents, for example, a challenge to educational categories and path dependencies that we have become locked into, holding us back, and creating artificial divisions. Liberal versus vocational, further education versus higher education, colleges versus universities, research versus teaching, traditional versus modern, full-time versus parttime – the list could go on and on. These old and tired debates fill up too much of our thinking time. They are boring, and they do little work for us anymore. The idea of the tertiary allows us to shatter these false oppositions and the false boundaries between them.

We can use the idea to challenge educational structures and policies that hold people back and put barriers in their way. There should not, for example, be a presumption that vocational training and work in the real world is inadequate preparation for academic courses. We have heard from talented apprentices whom ‘leading’ UK universities will not touch because they don’t have A-levels – this sort of thing is pure snobbery, and it is counterproductive. Our system here in the UK is tremendously unforgiving of mistakes, especially mistakes made by young people. Choosing a diverse mix of subjects, or simply attempting something ambitious and not quite make it: these are not to be encouraged in the new political economy of higher education. For many, missing out on those vital AAB A-level grades is now unbearably perilous – a recipe for playing-it-safe attitudes, low on imagination or lateral thinking.

There should be no presumption that 360 credits of undergraduate study in a lifetime ought to be enough for anyone, unless of course they are training to be a doctor, dentist or engineer. We now have a system where the price of doing more than the normal amount of undergraduate study at any time in one’s life is to be a privilege for only the super-wealthy, making the last UK government’s rightly derided equivalent or lower-level qualification (ELQ) policy look like peanuts, and spelling death to lifelong learning. A simple yet enormously ambitious reform: to actually make it an expectation that half of all graduates will become undergraduates again, part-time, at some point in their lives.

We should stop seeing progression itself as linear, only ever moving up the scale of educational levels. Why not further education after higher, or why not both together? In the space of three years, is it beyond our wit to enable people to study a history degree and a BTEC management diploma, at the same time? We should assume that it isn’t beyond the wit of our international competitors, and start to think about how colleges and universities can really work together on their core curriculum, not just marginal ‘HE in FE/ FE in HE’ provision.

We should also stop wasting our vast educational estate. Why do we close our primary schools at 4pm? There are tens of thousands of publicly-owned and locally-controlled learning centres embedded in every community up and down the land. They should be sites for adult education organised by universities and colleges. There could be a national volunteer force of graduates to support it, building social connections and developing their skills. While we’re at it, open up the libraries, by funding institutions specifically to make their learning resources available to the community.

The idea of the tertiary says something important about a universal ambition for education. Not merely post-compulsory, but all-encompassing. It has been estimated (by Tom Schuller and David Watson) that of all our education spending, only 15% is spent on people over the age of 24; as this century progresses and as we all live longer, this begins to look very wrong. We should try to imagine a future in which four in every five people have a direct stake in a tertiary education system – participating in it, using it throughout their lives, with the funding and time to benefit from it to the full. That would be a system we could truly call universal, like our health system is universal. This is about education meeting people’s needs from the nursery to old age.

It is a democratic idea. In fact, it is an imperative for democracy at a time when democracy is getting harder and harder to pull off. A good education is the making of good citizens. We want them to be able to negotiate their differences and their competing interests, with civility, restraint and mutual respect. We want people to be able to challenge what they read in the papers and see on TV. We want them to know how the laws are made that govern their lives, and how they might change them. We want them to know the beauty of science and the natural world, the relevance of history and literature, and the power and pleasure of practical skills.

Why is it so hard for our politicians to speak of these things instead of talking all the time in the cold, dead language of the market? It is because they haven’t got an educational philosophy worth believing in.

But the idea of the tertiary is worth believing in. It invites us to develop policies and practices that allow people’s hopes to become possible. People want to have power over their own lives, to comprehend the world, to be liberated, to be capable in work and life. We want an education system that can do these things.

Tertiary education: not a campaign, or a manifesto, or an objective, or a policy, or indeed a spring for ‘deathless prose’, but an idea – and an idea whose time has come.

Liam Burns was elected as NUS UK President for 2011–12, after being elected as Deputy President and President of NUS Scotland. As President of NUS, Liam is responsible for leading on the organisations Priority campaign, calling for reinvestment of public funding in tertiary education and an end to the current tuition fees regime. He grew up in Fife where he attended Glenrothes College. He graduated in Physics at Heriot-Watt University, where he was both the Students’ Association Vice-President (Education& Welfare) and subsequently President. Liam has been an Officer within the European Students’ Union and has been involved in Quality Assurance processes both on a national and European level through The Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA), the European Association for Quality Assurance in Higher Education (ENQA) and the European Quality Assurance Register for Higher Education (EQAR).

The National Union of Students (NUS) is a confederation of over 200 students’ unions across the UK and represents over seven million students. It works to promote, defend and extend students rights as well as promoting strong and active students’ unions.

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