Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Labour's spin dominance has led to a legacy of mediocrity

From roughly 1994 all the way through to 2005 Labour dominated many of the key debates about the future shape of this country. While senior Labour politicians would argue they were 'winning the big arguments' what, in actual fact, this amounted to, was a mastery of the language setting and communications battles around these issues. In campaigning parlance, they were able to 'frame the choice' consistently better than their Conservative or Lib Dem opponents.

Today's report into university funding by Lord Browne is a direct result of these years of dominance. The Labour spin team often framed the choice in such a way that they boxed their opponents in to, either supporting their proposals or, opposing them with alternative plans that were then painted as bonkers.

Labour ministers set a target of 50 per cent of all school leavers to go to university because, they argued, only this would help to secure the UK's place in the global economy of the future. This would then be backed up with statistics of the number of Indians or Chinese graduating each year. If you argued with their logic then you were putting the future of the country in danger or, were clearly against social mobility.     

While Labour built on the Conservative reforms of the early 1990s and pushed for more universities and more university places, the all important measure of quality was ignored. We will all remember stories of various Mickey Mouse courses - media studies at the University of Edge Hill with a 23 percent chance of a job after 6 months anyone? Or the examples of universities allowing students to progress to their final year even if they fail their exams. The expansion of the university system as witnessed in the 1960s this was not.

While Labour politicians and their spinners crowed and celebrated winning their big arguments, we have moved into a period of mediocrity, falling standards and devalued degrees. Have a look at any of the university league tables and more than a cursory glance reveals poor teaching, high drop out rates, declining standards in research (so often the UK's USP), and graduates ill prepared for a life of work let alone competing with the surging economies of India, China or even Brazil.

Today we are seeing the current coalition government trying to find a way to fund a system that is unsustainable, unhelpful to many who pass through the system and unlikely to help our global competitiveness in the years ahead. Isn't it time the original debate about the shape of our university system was re-opened?

Take on Labour and others who advocated striving for 50 per cent and instead make the debate about quality. The current financial situation allows this debate to be reopened. Brown and Balls barking statistics and numbers at us like Stalinist tractor production targets are in the past. Our universities are not the only area where Labour has left a legacy of mediocrity, but they should be the first where that mediocrity begins to be reversed.

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