Education for all?
There’s a fair chance that this woman doesn’t think you should be at university at all.

Adam Hibbert

From discussion of the Dearing Report on HE last year, you might have thought that the only issue was whether students should pay to attend university. But then, you probably missed what Melanie Phillips had to say about it.

Ex-News Editor at The Guardian, author of ‘All Must Have Prizes’, and Observer columnist, Phillips is fighting what she sees as a ‘dumbing-down’ of education. She believes that issues like HE funding can only be resolved once a deep flaw in education orthodoxy is exposed; in this case, the bit that assumes ‘everyone to be equally able to benefit from a university education’.

Since NUS shares that assumption, its opposition to Dearing has been confined to a No Fees campaign. But Phillips contends that “confronting tuition fees is addressing yourself to the symptom, not the cause. It doesn’t get you very far because ultimately, if you accept the premise that more people are going into the system, then money has to be found somewhere. You’re left arguing over whether it comes from taxpayers or students.”

Her opposition to Dearing comes from a different place: “The Dearing report is a catastrophic, stupid, philistine report. It pays lip service to the liberal ideal of education for its own sake - but everything it recommends is hostile to that ideal. It is shot through with the belief that the only valid education is that which directly equips young people for economic activity. But the point of HE is to equip young people with the highest order of mental skills, from which flow all kinds of indirect benefits to the economy. To reduce it all straight to economics destroys the whole idea of an academic education - what place is there in a vocational education for history or literature?”. The Dearing Report makes recommendations which tie all degrees more closely to components including work experience and office skills, about which NUS is silent.

Photo: Abbie Trayler-Smith

Phillips reckons that we are already some way down this road. “Universities now run courses which are by no stretch of the imagination academic - hairdressing or whatever. Employers know this degree isn’t the same as one in Physics. Students will discover the hard way that the real world does not recognise them equally. So you’re telling people a lie, building in disillusion, failing to equip them for what they should be equipped for, and diluting the value of academic education. Most young people want and need proper skills training to give them a job. This doesn’t require sitting in a University for three years getting letters after their name.”

Phillips dismisses qualms about elitism, here. “People are so used to thinking that, if you don’t hold the belief in equality of outcome, then you are a horrible person, you’re conniving in a system in which some people will do better than others; that to be a meritocrat is morally evil. They won’t admit that some will do better, for fear of being labelled elitist, or Conservative. I believe in equal opportunity, not equal outcome. If you believe in equality of outcome you get involved in producing a whole series of lies”.

Phillips has been fighting education dogmas for over a decade. Back then, anyone breaking ranks with those who criticised Thatcherism for underfunding was branded a Tory; yet Phillips - who leans more on the traditions of ethical socialism - couldn’t square this ‘funding’ critique with the good performance of some deprived schools. The new orthodoxy of ‘child-centred’ learning, which, for example, branded the teaching of grammar a constraint on pupils’ creativity, increasingly seemed to her to be the real betrayal of children “at the bottom of the heap, who depend absolutely on school to overcome the disadvantage of their background”.

She was immediately dismissed by some as a reactionary, while being ‘inundated’ with support from educationalists and parents. It’s no surprise that her opinions have brought Phillips some flak - herself educated at Putney High School (a grammar) and St. Anne’s, Oxford, attacks from the ‘education establishment’ are often highly personalised. In better moments, she finds irony in being called a Tory; “It was the Conservatives who made the polytechnics into universities. Mrs. Thatcher shut down more Grammar schools than anyone. The Conservatives’ record was all about uniform consumer choice in a free market”. That record, for Phillips, speaks volumes about where conservatism lies in current education policy.

She is encouraged by the support of people “who, for reasons I perfectly understand, are unwilling to put their own heads above the parapet”. But she has lost friends, too. “There are chattering class types who wouldn’t be seen dead with me, and I’m pretty sure that it’s caused me trouble with people who run the media”. While Phillips stresses that she has no complaint with her employers, the Guardian Media Group, concerning herself mainly with broadcasters and publishers, one might suspect that her career in Leftish broadsheets has hardly benefited.

Had her own children been a factor in putting her ‘head above the parapet’ in the face of these disincentives? Phillips reflects for a second; “It’s impossible to disentangle one’s personal experiences from one’s professional information, but I wouldn’t say that was the main reason. I’ve always been concerned with people at the bottom of the pile; what changed was my perception of why they were there. In the mid eighties, I realised that people I had assumed were on the same side as me, turned out not to be.”

While hoping that people will fight through a ‘thicket of disinformation’ to challenge the trend epitomised by Dearing, she is pessimistic about the prospects for change. She addresses New Labour’s record in an updated edition of All Must Have Prizes, out next month - and while the rhetoric sounds good, actual policy looks like more of the same. Does Phillips think her mission can succeed? “The jury’s out”.

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