Wednesday, May 29, 2019

An old delusion makes an unwelcome comeback

I was sorry to see one of the most foolish ideas from the student politics of my youth making an unwelcome return in a tweet from the leader of the opposition - the idea that .the worlds of business and education have nothing to offer each other.

The worst thing which can possibly happen to Universities is that they become ivory towers with no link to the real world or the actual challenges facing the country.

Jeremy Corbyn tweeted at the weekend that he wants to see "a National Education Service to abolish university fees and deliver free education for all. Let's get corporations out of the classroom and off campus."

I would love to see the abolition of the University Tuition fees which were initially introduced by the last Labour government after they promised at the 1997 general election that Labour had "no plans" to do so. Labour then doubled the fees, breaking their promise at the 2001 election that they would not introduce higher or "top-up" fees and had legislated to prevent them.

I wish I could convince myself that any party had a credible way to fund the implementation of any promise to scrap tuition fees. But I cannot.

If Labour is elected on a promise to scrap student fees there is a good chance that this will be yet another broken promise to add to twenty years of broken promises on student fees.

All three political parties have U-turned in their policies on student fees and financial support. Everyone remembers that the Lib/Dems promised at the 2010 general election not to vote for higher University tuition fees and then did so.

Not quite so many people remember that Labour have broken three such promises. They broke the promises made at the 1997 and 2001 general elections as described above, and when they voted through "top-up fees" the Labour government promised that there would be no further increase in student fees before the end of the following parliament, but then broke that promise to in 2009.

Unlike Labour and the Lib/Dems the Conservative U-turn on the subject didn't break an election promise, because it took place well before the 2010 election in which the Conservatives  returned to government. 

However, since all three major parties have opposed student fees at least some of the time when in opposition, but invariably introduced, maintained  or increased them when in government, a reasonable person might conclude that scrapping such fees is something  they would all like to do but have found it completely impossible to afford in practice.

But the promise to abolish fees, though completely incredible, is not the daftest element of 
the Leader of the Opposition's tweet.

That is the promise to get "corporations out of the classroom and off campus."

This is not a new idea, the suggestion that business was an enemy to be excluded from the ivory towers of academia was popular among a certain type of idealistic and utterly impractical hard-left student back when Jeremy Corbyn was at university himself.

So sadly it is not a surprise that his anti-business worldview should lead him to resurrect this idea. But it was insanity fifty years ago and it is insanity now.

Why would anyone in their right mind want to break all the links between education
 and industry when most of them have been of immense benefit to both sides?

And when I say that links with business have been of benefit to education I don't primarily 
mean the money those links have provided to schools and universities, though that has certainly been welcome. I refer to the opportunity for students and staff to learn from real-world and often cutting-edge challenges. 

Academics need to keep their skills up to date, and that invariably means they need to study or practice as well as teach. When a company gives a research contract to a university to work on a cutting edge project in IT, genetics, medicine or chemistry, the fact that such contracts are almost always highly lucrative for the university is absolutely nothing to be ashamed of but it isn't actually the most important benefit. It's not even one of the top two.

The first is the skill development opportunity it provides for the university's people to be involved in this research. The second is the benefit to recruitment and retention of the brightest staff members which comes with that opportunity and the prestige of winning such contracts.

And where do you imagine most of the students attending schools and universities will be looking to get jobs when they leave or graduate? From businesses, of course. What better way to make sure that they have the opportunity to get the skills which will enable them to get those jobs and succeed at them than to have links between education and business? How can you expect teachers to know what skills businesses are looking for if you don't allow academics and industry to talk to each other?

Many courses at universities and colleges are highly vocational in nature, such as engineering, law, medicine, accountancy. Any attempt to stop the people who teach those courses from having links with other practitioners in those fields is not just stupid - it simply won't work. And if it was seriously attempted it would stop the brightest people taking jobs in UK universities - they would go into private industry or they would go abroad.

It is par for the course, and yet another indication that under Jeremy Corbyn's "leadership" the Labour party is too far out of touch with the real world to have any chance of being anything other than a disaster if they get into government, that he does not understand why "getting corporations out of the classroom and off campus" is a really, really bad idea.

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