What connects recent events in post-compulsory education policy and what can we learn from them? Weaving the two case studies together to explore the contemporary post-compulsory landscape in England.
As a researcher and former practitioner of continuing education, I explore the relationship between technical education reforms and the professional identities of those working in a FE sector plagued by commodification and political change. Watching the media events unfold on Monday as Sheffield Hallam announced the scrapping of its English Literature degree course, I couldn’t help but ponder some of the comparisons between that announcement and FE’s current trajectory.
It should be clarified, however, that Sheffield Hallam is certainly not the first and unfortunately will not be the last HEI in England to eliminate humanities subjects while operating in a results-oriented and market-driven environment. Commentators and public figures are right to respond to Sheffield Hallam’s decision with strong condemnation. Citing the need to get their graduates into “highly skilled professions” within 6 months, Sheffield Hallam reinforces the simply false and bizarre notion that earning an English degree is “of low value” in the society. As educators should know, arts subjects possess great value, not only because they equip graduates with meaningful and valuable research, analysis, understanding and communication skills, to name a few- one. However, this article attempts to articulate opposition to the changes on the basis of other grounds.
More importantly, as an institution, Sheffield Hallam has also contributed to a climate in which courses in the humanities are becoming increasingly inaccessible to working-class students and those who come from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Progress with the “upgrade” program
What seems perhaps most significant in this matter is the timing of this change. Monday’s announcement came against the political backdrop of the UK government pursuing its “race up” agenda and associated rhetoric of tackling regional inequality. Yet this announcement shows once again that researchers and practitioners need to ask themselves exactly how an education system governed by market principles enables the “levelling” of choices and opportunities for all.
As an institution in a city with a child poverty rate of 26% and where 40% of students come from within 25 miles of Sheffield, this reform will further limit access for less privileged students from all South Yorkshire with its culturally significant vitality and dynamism of studies in the arts. As sociological and educational research consistently shows, working-class students often choose a university based on various factors rather than prestige. Whether choosing an HEI because of ties to their home, wider community, or even class size, free market protests from “students who want to study English literature can just take their custom elsewhere.” are simply not enough.
As the tertiary and higher education sectors operate in a policy context driven by financialization and growing pressure to close skills gaps in the labor market, very little is done in research and commentary to connect the dots between higher education and higher education fields. Similar rhetoric and experiences can be found across FE, where concepts of ’employability’ have long been entrenched in financing and supply management. I am not pleading here for an education system that does not support the transition of our young people to the labor market. However, with the T-Level reform, those who choose ‘non-academic’ pathways are being directed to a choice of courses that are more influential than ever with employers, designed with the aim of filling skills gaps on the job market. the work market.
Equal access and opportunities at the basis of national policies
Equal access and opportunity should be the very foundation of our nation’s policies. What we have instead is an educational environment in which pressures to highlight “meaningful” outcomes and adhere to ideologically designed destination measures limit opportunities for poorer students, pushing individuals towards careers currently valued by the labor market. In such a climate, the government’s methods of tackling inequality of opportunity and the ‘Level-Up’ parts of England must once again be challenged. I am not adamantly opposed to an increase in skilled labor opportunities within communities. Far from there. What concerns me, however, is the restriction of opportunities for young people caused by the political climate, by ranking aspirations in careers that generate better economic growth results and higher rankings.
Among other aspects, what links the two cases is the reduction of choice for those who may not reach the baccalaureate or for those who wish to follow an alternative post-compulsory path that is not only dominated by exams and academic progress. Here, these consequences of reform are disproportionately burdened by the poorest working-class students.
By Hannah McCarthy, postgraduate researcher and PhD candidate at Manchester Institute of Education, University of Manchester.
This article was written by the author as a chance to spark debate and discussion around these events. The author encourages those for whom this article is of interest or for researchers and practitioners with similar concerns to contact her via Twitter or LinkedIn.
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