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Surprisingly neoliberal: the SNP’s approach to further education

February 6, 2016

I was scrolling through twitter the other day and I saw this image, tweeted by the Scottish Labour Party:

Labour tweet

I’m never impressed when political parties use social media for point-scoring and slagging each other off. It seems a bit cynical just plucking some convenient statistics out of the air and using them to attack another party. Clearly I wasn’t the only one that felt this way, as the following comments appeared in the thread below:

“Jeezo, relentless positivity :)”

“oh my, now that’s bad spin, that’s very bad spin, that’s embarrassingly bad spin. no wonder U’re numbers are plummeting,”

“it’s so tedious and boring n they don’t get it. 😝”


So yes, maybe this kind of tweet, one that cynically aims to show the SNP’s further education policy in a negative light without offering any kind of positive alternative, deserves simply to be dismissed as such. But there were some comments that actually engaged with the issue as well. These examples give an idea of what was said in defence of the SNP:

“No matter how you dress it up. Cutting unaccredited short courses of <10hrs delivered this success”

“I was so looking forward to my college certified foundation course in practical car scoosher refilling too.”

“it was due to cutting useless fun ‘courses’ like basketweaving to focus on full time useful stuff that get people in work”

“so looking forward to my course in origami however I folded and took a real course in engineering.

OK, so there are a couple of things here. For starters, these commenters are all making the point that while the number of students doing further education (FE) courses has gone down, this is because there are a lot fewer students doing part-time courses and a lot more studying full-time. Which they think is a good thing. They think it’s a good thing because there seems to be a general belief that part-time college courses are a waste of time. I’m not sure where this general belief has come from, but when you say the phrase “part-time college course”, people tend to think of subjects that are more hobby-like than vocational, more about having fun than being of any actual use.

What people seem to have forgotten is that you can do a part-time course in accounting, or engineering, or hairdressing. People who didn’t do well at school the first time around can go back to college and do some Highers in the evenings, to broaden their career options or get access to university. People who have recently been made redundant can retrain and compete in the jobs market and avoid ending up on the scrapheap. Retired people can get the basic computing skills they need to allow them to order their groceries online, and pay their heating bills, and maybe even switch provider if they feel they’re not getting a good deal. Single parents can manage their caring responsibilities but still be on a course that will allow them to progress with their careers when their kids are older.

At least they could. But now, as a result of the SNP’s FE policy, it’s very difficult to study anything part-time these days.

The point I’m trying to make here is that the people who suffer the most from cuts to part-time FE courses are very often people who are already the most vulnerable. Single parents, the elderly, the recently unemployed, people with disabilities, people who can’t progress with their careers unless they re-train – these are the people that benefitted from part-time courses and who are now suffering through their demise. It may be convenient to dismiss part-time college courses as a load of liberal artsy-fartsy nonsense, but to do this is to demonstrate either a considerable amount of ignorance or a lack of compassion, or both. John Field, a leading educational academic and specialist in Adult Learning, has made exactly this point here.

The other thing is the broader, political implication behind the SNP’s current further education strategy. The Developing the Young Workforce policy document, the key driver in FE curriculum planning at the moment, is quite clearly grounded in Human Capital theory. Emerging from a previous government paper written by the prominent businessman Sir Ian Wood (not an education specialist by any means), DYW is aimed directly at 16-19 year-olds and the provision of training programmes to meet the employment needs of industry. Colleges are expected to engage with employers to find out what type of skills they need their employees to have, and amend their programmes accordingly. Employability is the big buzzword and features highly in college outcome agreements and curriculum planning documents.

This view of education is rooted in a belief that people exist to serve economic requirements, and it’s very neoliberal indeed. Education is regarded as a commodity, to be invested in with a view to gaining an economic return – nothing more. Of course it’s a good thing to educate young people so they are able to do a job, but that’s not all education is about. There is more to life than work, and the FE sector has a role in educating people about the other things as well. It also has a responsibility to cater for the needs of older people; you can’t promote lifelong learning and then deny access to it.

In the 2015 general election the SNP placed itself firmly to the left of Labour, advocating an anti-austerity policy and generally championing social equality. This is probably what ensured such a huge success for the SNP in the UK election, and also sets them up nicely for a very comfortable majority in Holyrood later this year. But the same party, which claims to be so concerned with equality, social justice and the rights of minorities, is pursuing an education policy that ignores all of that and is instead transforming colleges into production lines for corporations. This is not the behaviour of a left-leaning party committed to a more egalitarian society.

I suppose it boils down to this: either you believe that people exist for the economy, or you believe that the economy exists for the people. The idea of an economy that exists for the people sounds so much more preferable though, doesn’t it? A society where people’s happiness and well-being is seen as more important than the profits of multinational corporations. Where everybody gets a fair share and working people don’t have to just hope for some kind of trickle-down from the super-rich. A society where we consider moral value as well as monetary value, where quality of life is more important than career management, where, dare I say it, we can choose to do a basketweaving class if we want to…

But the SNP has chosen to pursue an FE policy that does the opposite. Access to education is diminishing for those who already have barriers to learning. And instead, 16-19 year-olds are being channelled through a very narrow curriculum with employability as its main focus, in order to give big businesses the workforce they need to continue to make profits.

So, by all means go ahead and slam Labour down for cynical use of social media, and feel free to belittle the value of part-time courses. But understand that to support the SNP’s current FE policy is to support a neoliberal view of socioeconomics, which benefits corporations and further disadvantages vulnerable people. Is that what the SNP stands for?

  1. Good points, Steve. See also local government funding. Not much ‘going for growth’ there either. It’s almost as if all that anti-austerity stuff before the General Election was only ever cynical political posturing adopted by a party that knew it could say whatever it thought voters wanted to hear without fear of its ever being held to account since it could not possibly be more than a junior coalition partner in any government that emerged and would always be able to blame someone else for the failure to deliver. That couldn’t possibly be right, though, could it? I’m sure there’s some other explanation.

  2. Personally, I think the best hope for the sort of thing you seem to be yearning for is to give up all the nationalist nonsense and get involved in taking back the Labour Party from the elite Oxbridge careerists who’ve hijacked it for thirty years.

  3. Sorry to comment yet again, Steve, but in keeping with my conviction that socialism is international or it is nothing, that it must transend Britishness fully as much as it must transcend Scottishness, I should also draw this to your attention.

  4. Hi Patrick, and thanks for your comments.
    It certainly does seem that the SNP have been saying one thing and doing another. And you may be right that the only way out of this is for the Labour party’s socialist values to be restored. I still believe though that voting for independence would have been the most effective counter-neoliberal action that the Scottish people could take. Of course, if we then ended up voting in an alternative neoliberal government up here it would have been a total waste of time. Even with hindsight it’s not easy to tell though.
    Of course, separating from the UK doesn’t mean cutting off communication with the rest of the world – on the contrary. So I agree that like-minded socialists can do a lot across borders, and this Diem movement seems interesting – thanks for sharing that.

  5. Hi Steve

    Solidarity across borders is of course possible, but the borders certainly don’t help. We need fewer of them, not more. Nationalism gives rise to counter-nationalism. We saw this in George Square on the day of the referendum result. We saw it too, I believe, in the election last May. The rise of Scottish nationalism has produced a rise in English nationalism, a rise that clearly benefited both the Tories and UKIP, both of which parties did much better than expected. Both of those parties capitalised heavily in their campaigns on English fear of the SNP. Their success strongly suggests that this was an effective technique. Personally I have little doubt that the present government owes its majority to the upsurge of Scottish nationalism.

  6. Hi Patrick,
    The standard response to what you’re saying is that Labour lost the general election because they didn’t get enough seats in England, and that even if the whole of Scotland had voted Labour it (once again) wouldn’t have made a blind bit of difference. If some English people voted Tory as a reaction against the SNP’s popularity in Scotland, well, I’m not quite sure I can understand that logic. You may be right of course, but I imagine that most people in England didn’t vote Labour because they didn’t like/trust Labour, rather than anything to do with the SNP.
    Nationalism can of course be very ugly. But there’s a difference between nationalism and the existence of nations. You can’t have internationalism without nations. The question is whether or not Scotland is different enough from the rest of the UK – politically and culturally – to make it worthwhile for it to become a nation in its own right. The irony is that the SNP has spent the past few years trying to convince us that the political landscape in Scotland is so different from the rest of the UK that it’s undemocratic for us to be part of the union, and then it goes ahead and implements policies that are not far removed from what’s coming out of Westminster anyway.

  7. You’re right, Steve. The question is indeed ‘whether or not Scotland is different enough from the rest of the UK- politically and culturally- to make it worthwhile for it to become a nation in its own right.’ The fact that Scots in overwhelming numbers chose to express their cultural and political uniqueness by voting for a party that ‘goes ahead and implements policies that are not far removed from what’s coming out of Westminster anyway,’ strongly suggests that it is not.

    • Or, maybe they voted for the SNP because it has managed to convince most people in Scotland that is a left-leaning party with socialist principles, but actually it is nothing of the sort. That was kind of the point of my post.

      • Yet Scots overwhelmingly do not support Sheridan or the RIC, just as people in other countries typically do not support in any great numbers left formations there (Greece has become an interesting exception). Scotland, far from having some unique political culture, seems to be following a general, baleful pattern.

  8. Peace processes are good. For there to be peace processes there need to be warring factions. To say that ‘you can’t have internationalism without nations’ is like saying that you can’t have peace processes without warring factions and then inferring that we need more warring factions so that we can have more peace processes.

    • I don’t there’s anything wrong with having countries. Different regions of the world are different, and these differences should be celebrated, otherwise we all end up eating McDonald’s and listening to Taylor Swift – surely there’s value in cultural diversity. Also, politically distinct regions should have the right to make their own political decisions, otherwise it’s undemocratic.

  9. But we do all eat McDonalds and listen to Taylor Swift. Having countries doesn’t seem to help. Do you think Scottish independence would change that. If so, show me where to sign up.

    • Speak for yourself.
      I think having nations allows people to develop a sense of cultural identity and affinity with the community they are part of. Culture and heritage are important to social cohesion, are they not?
      Then there’s the political argument. The bigger the nation, the easier it is for the majority to marginalise minorities. It could be argued that having a lot of small nations ensures that minority communities are able to have a voice in global politics and society. I know that minority groups are not always geographically concentrated, but they often are. Think of China, or the former USSR. The USSR was a good example of imperialism disguised as internationalism.

  10. Well, I suppose it depends whether you want social cohesion or social transformation. Appeals to national identity, culture, cohesion etc have always been used by conservatives to undermine class solidarity. ‘We’re all in this together.’ That the SNP is a bourgeois party has always been obvious.

    I guess what I’m getting at is that I’m surprised that you are surprised by the SNP’s embrace of neoliberalism. The SNP comes in a tin with neoliberalism written all over it.

    • I suppose it’s only surprising when you compare it with the left-leaning, anti-austerity, pro-social justice discourse that the SNP used in the last general election. It shows the SNP up as deceitful which, again maybe isn’t that surprising from a political party. You’re clearly not surprised. But I think a lot of people in Scotland voted for the SNP in the 2015 election because they saw them as a real socialist alternative to Labour, as opposed to Labour themselves who, by agreeing with the pursuit of a pro-austerity agenda, weren’t left-wing enough for many Scottish people. I don’t think many people voted SNP because they liked their right-wing neoliberal policies.

      • I think they’re playing a very duplicitous game in which they attempt to exploit the frustrations of the left whilst at the same time not alienating their more long-standing, rather conservatively minded support base. They need to appeal to both of these constituencies because neither, alone, is big enough to bring electoral success. For the time being the whole bandwagon is being held together by euphoria and a swooning sense of togetherness. That can’t last much longer, though. It’s already beginning to creak under the weight of its contradictions.

      • I note today that they have voted down a proposal for a very modest income tax rise that even the lib dems support. If it’s true that people voted for the SNP because they represented a socialist alternative then we can expect the SNP to be wiped out in May. The corollory of this, of course, is that if they are not wiped out in May then it is because people do not vote for them because they represent a socialist alternative.

      • Or, not enough people will have realised how un-socialist the SNP actually are, which could be blamed on the SNP’s clever duplicity or Labour’s ineffectiveness at exposing them.

  11. Ken MacDougall permalink

    I suppose you both received a very Jeremy Hunt style email yesterday from Keith McKellar. I don’t think that would be going out without at least a nod from Holyrood.

    • Hi Ken,
      Yes, the parallels between Jeremy Hunt’s handling of the doctors’ contracts and the Scottish government’s handling of the FE lecturers’ dispute are easy to see. Is the pseudo-socialist mask slipping?

    • The SNP’s opportunistic and cynical effort to co opt a growing international disaffection with capitalism (or, if you prefer, neoliberalism, but neoliberalism is really just capitalism with the gloves off; its rationalisations are the same as capitalism’s rationalisations) are surely repugnant. Not only is it fraudulent but it also, and this is its point, diverts political energy away from genuinely emancipatory activities, by fetishising such things as national identity, culture and so forth. I do not deny the existemce of national identity and culture. Nor do I wish to eliminate them, but the struggle against the pathological madness of international capitalism must be an international struggle. Actually, our local customs are not under threat. No one wants to ban Scottish country dancing. What is under threat is healthcare, education and such like. These things are not special to some country or another. Moreover, there is nothing specifically Scottish about left wing ideas. Corbyn got elected without much Scottish support, and even in the United States a relatively radical figure (though not a Socialist as we understand the term; let’s not get too excited) may very well be the next president.

    • Actually, I still haven’t had this email, Ken. What does it say? It has occurred to me, though, that we can’t really accuse the SNP government of hypocrisy for resisting demands for a pay rise by FE lecturers. Steve says,

      ‘In the 2015 general election the SNP placed itself firmly to the left of Labour, advocating an anti-austerity policy and generally championing social equality.’

      Money, of course, is nothing but entitlement to goods and services. Supposing that the total production of goods and services remains the same then an increase in income for one group is simply an increase in that group’s share of the total amount of goods and services produced. A decrease, therefore, for other groups. An increase in income for one group, therefore, is precisely equivalent to a decrease in income for all other groups. Greater equality is served by raising the incomes of groups that presently enjoy lower than average incomes. Greater inequality, though, surely, is served by raising the incomes of those groups that presently enjoy higher than average incomes. In striving to keep down the pay of the already relatively highly-paid, such as FE lecturers, the SNP is behaving perfectly consistently with its championship of social equality.

      • Hi Patrick,
        I feel I should comment before you start arguing with yourself. The current call for industrial action isn’t really about wanting more pay, it’s about wanting equal pay. The SNP re-imposed national bargaining recently and had the union’s support in this as there is currently a big disparity in FE lecturers’ salaries from college to college. The EIS assumed that national bargaining would lead towards all lecturers getting the same pay and conditions. However, there are a couple of problems. One is that some colleges have flatly refused to participate in any changes in pay/conditions agreed through national bargaining. I think your college might be among these, which would explain why you didn’t get that email. The other problem is that Colleges Scotland has offered a 1% pay rise to all lecturers, which does nothing to address existing inequalities. This offer was rejected by the EIS for this reason. Now, colleges Scotland (presumably with the support of the Scottish government) has decided to “impose” this pay offer, which was never agreed.
        I see the point you are arguing, but it’s a very simplistic argument if you don’t mind me saying so, and I don’t think the SNP is motivated by a need to reduce the salaries of FE lecturers as a means of re-distributing wealth. I know we get paid above average salaries, but it would still be a rather odd starting point for such a project

      • Hi Steve

        I’m not suggesting that the government is trying to achieve social equality by limiting FE lecturers’ pay, only that limiting FE lecturers’ pay is perfectly consistent with such a goal. Ken seemed to be suggesting that its approach to a pay dispute with FE lecturers was another example of the SNP government failing to live up to the egalitarian rhetoric of the SNP’s general election campaign. I don’t think it is. I think a commitment to egalitarianism is perfectly consistent with adopting a robust, no-nonsense approach to an already privileged group demanding still more. I think it’s a bit disingenuous to claim that the EIS is concerned only with inequalities in pay between colleges. Suppose, instead of 1% being offered to everyone, an offer which ‘does nothing to address existing inequalities’, 1% had been offered only to those whose present salaries are below typical for the sector, something which would certainly go some way to addressing existing inequalities. Would we be happier with that? I’m sure Colleges Scotland would be most amenable to any suggestion of that sort.

    • Hi Patrick,
      Just briefly re. the current dispute between colleges and the EIS. The main reasons for the dispute (as I understand it) are twofold:
      1. The government has introduced national bargaining, which the EIS welcomed as they saw it as an opportunity to address national inequalities among college lecturers. But since this was introduced nothing has been done to address this at all. The main reason for rejecting the 1% pay offer was precisely because it only further increases the inequality rather than helping to reduce it. If the offer had involved something like a 2% increase for the lowest half of colleges and 0% for the top half, the EIS might have gone along with it. But no such offer was made. In fact, as I understand it, there’s been no real bargaining at all – just some circular discussions followed by an offer which was rejected and now this offer is being “imposed”.
      2. Despite the government introducing national bargaining, a number of colleges, including yours, have decided to “opt out”. I’m not sure if this is even legal, but it effectively means that lecturers like you are excluded from the bargaining process. Your college managers have refused to implement any decisions made nationally and agreed with the EIS.
      You may think that college lecturers are paid too much, but this is less about money and more about procedures and the rights of employees to have proper union representation, and for the right to work towards parity of terms and conditions across all colleges. Surely that’s important too?

  12. Yes, it is. I’m torn on the issue. Actually, I voted to strike. I only wanted to say that resisting the pay demands of a union that represents relatively highly-paid workers is not necessarily an attack on social justice in the way that a huge assault on local government funding, for example, certainly is.

  13. Owen Jones the other day observed that Nicola Sturgeon’s argument for not raising the top rate of income tax was the same as the argument against high taxes on the rich that has been advanced over the years by George Osborne, Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. The reaction was a twitterstorm of neuralgic nationalist fury, of the sort to which we have become accustomed.

  14. Richenda permalink

    Thanks Steve for an interesting read. I wanted to comment earlier on the point that part-time courses are also essential for those who need to keep the day job going, but want to requalify/ retrain, but sort of missed the boat, so I apologise for this out of synch comment. Part-time courses have been essential for me as both a student and teacher. With my personal situation which has been highly mobile, part-time courses have meant that I have been able to keep my CPD going AND they have benefited me as a teacher as I have been able to get part-time work teaching wherever we have been moved to. This change is going to destroy lifelong learning not enhance it and decrease employability not improve it.

    As you stated the SNP was elected on the basis that they were offering something different to the Westminster bods, but watching from south of the border I’m struggling to see the difference

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