Surprisingly neoliberal: the SNP’s approach to further education
I was scrolling through twitter the other day and I saw this image, tweeted by the Scottish Labour Party:
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?