The consequences of kicking the can down the road

Kicking the can down the road is sometimes a useful tactic for avoiding short-term political pain, but often results in significant long-term damage. If a politician can kick a particular can far enough away, they may avoid personal damage for poor decisions, laziness and lies. Instead it’s the people in the can that’s being kicked who suffer. I’m fairly certain that’s the strategy of the current government when it comes to finalising the exit process from the European Union. When it proves to be the national disaster everyone with any foresight predicted that it would be, the culprits will be long gone from office. No doubt they’ll manage to scrape the odd book deal or two from the wreckage. As for the rest of us, we need to make whatever contingency plans we can.

The EU exit can appears to have been successfully kicked away for a few more months. However, one that’s been kicked down the road by politicians of all parties for the last decade or so and has largely been forgotten about has been found hiding in the long grass by the National Audit Office (NAO). Their report into the higher education market makes grim reading and not only because of the seemingly unstoppable trend towards the marketisation of HE. Nick Hillman, the director of the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI), remarked that “There is a world of difference between buying a tin of beans and making the right decision about higher education“. Quite.

Far and away the biggest losers from the last decade of funding changes in HE in England have been part-time, mature students. The charts in the NAO report show the scale of the disaster for this group of learners since 2011, but in truth, the damage to this group had already started under the previous Labour government with the withdrawal of funding for equivalent and lower qualifications.

Since 2010/11, the number of part-time students has fallen dramatically, both in real terms and as a proportion of learners:

Figure 4

Part-time enrolments for undergraduate study in England have declined markedly since 2010/11.

… with mature, part-time undergraduates feeling the brunt of these changes, through policies that have created an especially hostile environment for this group.

Figure 14 - Mature students

Mature and part-time undergraduate student entrants in England 2011-2016.

Peter Horrocks, the Open University vice-chancellor tweeted this morning that the fall in part-time mature learners had mostly hit “… the career learners who need new skills”, adding “This is an own goal for government’s aims on productivity and social mobility.”

He’s right, of course. This is a can that the government needs to stop kicking. Proper policy and investment in lifelong learning will be essential if the UK – inside or outside of the EU – is to thrive in future.

Your thoughts?