BY BEN EAGLE
For anyone who reads my blog it’s probably clear that I’m not overly happy with the direction our country has been going in recent years. The drive to ‘let the market decide’ has, I believe, gone too far and we have forgotten the benefits that collective support can bring, instead opting for some sort of inward-focused, individualistic journey through life.
Don’t get me wrong, I believe strongly in the ethic of hard work to move yourself up through the ranks and am no fan of handouts. However, society should be there to support us, especially when we benefit as a whole as a result. It’s about balance, and we seem to have shifted the see-saw too much.
When it comes to agriculture (I have to mention it somewhere!) and horticulture it’s difficult to read a publication nowadays without some sort of reference to skills shortages (see this on plant pathology). That’s partly a problem with image, and farming continues to suffer from its stereotypical image cast in stone decades ago. The reality is probably (if not certainly) entirely different to the way many people think about it.
Many other sectors have the same issue, with insufficient numbers of people with necessary skills available domestically to plug the available jobs gap. Despite what some people might say, this is a major reason why immigration is necessary.
Teaching and learning skills is therefore a vital story of our age. We need to provide more apprenticeships and encourage youngsters to pursue this path if it’s right for them, we must improve access to colleges that focus on skills and support individuals to find their strengths and pursue a career that will benefit themselves, their families and the wider economy and society. By having more educated and highly skilled people in our society we all benefit.
However, I have an issue when it comes to focusing too much on ‘skills’, away from thinking about education more broadly. Learning skills is all part of wider education, but we seem to have forgotten the benefits of education for its own sake. We have forgotten that having more graduates (and generally well educated people) in the country is a good, not a bad thing when it comes to wider society. The economic impact is important, but not the be all and end all. I value my education for many reasons other than the fact that it enables me to make a living. It has broadened the way I think and given me access to all sorts of networks and groups of people who it’s unlikely I would have met otherwise. It gives the individual greater opportunity and flexibility, but in improving their prospects it also improves their capacity to give back to wider society, so that we all benefit.
I (a graduate) regularly debate with my grandmother (a non-graduate) the benefits of a university education, and berate the fact that the perception now for some is that you will get into so much debt by getting a degree that it’s not worth going down that path. Yes, you don’t have to pay back your loan until you are earning, but you will still be paying for many years, which may hold back other decisions that you make about your financial future, impacting on the wider economy. University education is becoming more, not less elitist due to the perception of great expense (and I use the word ‘elitist’ in reference to the amount of money your family has rather than academic ability). The other shift which infuriates me is the trend to value some subjects more than others, purely on the basis of vocational or economic value. The arts regularly suffer compared to sciences on this front.
Life is about more than money. Education for education’s sake has an immense value, and it’s something that should be encouraged as a lifelong pursuit. This will mean different things for different people, but in essence it’s about ‘learning new stuff’ or ‘being interested in stuff’. Although it doesn’t feel like it all the time, we live in a rich country, which gives the opportunity to experience multiple benefits. We seem to have forgotten the benefit of education. To offer an education service free at the point of access is one of the greatest gifts a society can offer its members.
One of Harold Wilson’s most worthy achievements was the establishment of the Open University in the 1960s, a visionary decision taken beyond its time. Unfortunately, fifty years on, whilst the OU continues, it suffers the same issues of access shared by every other higher education institution. This is one of the reasons that I think scrapping tuition fees is a good and necessary idea. We need to change the way we think about education, which has shifted to be seen as a commodity, partly due to the Tony Blair Labour government introducing tuition fees in the first place. Asking the individual to contribute some of the costs might not be a bad idea, but things have got out of hand.
Education is about more than higher education or plugging the skills gap. Further education should be about helping adults develop through their working lives, broadening horizons and the way that we think.
I don’t tend to side with any particular party, and have voted for almost all the established parties in recent years (except UKIP) but I always give credit where it is due and in raising the prospect of a ‘National Education Service’, I think that Jeremy Corbyn has thrown the education debate back on the table and should be applauded for doing so.
His NES would make education free at the point of use and would establish a system providing the opportunity for lifelong learning for us all. Surely, it is time to refocus our minds and remember the value of education for our society.
As part of the new ‘NES’ Labour would also invest in early years education and provide universal free childcare for all. This is radical stuff, but it is just as visionary in outlook as the Open University was in its day. Critically, it’s about joining up the gaps, and changing the way we see education. It will be expensive, and I’m not able to pick apart the figures (Labour manifesto unpublished at the time of writing) but they say it will be paid for by an increase in corporation tax. It’s unlikely that this will be popular with business, but ultimately, they will benefit by an increase in the general skills and education level of the population.
This is about a seed change in our way of thinking about education and I applaud Labour for its vision.
Ben Eagle is a guest writer for Country Squire Magazine. He generally writes about food, farming, the environment, politics and sustainability. Elsewhere, he has written for The Guardian, Farmland Magazine and the Sustainable Food Trust. His website www.thinkingcountry.com was highly commended in this year’s UK Blog Awards. You can follow him on twitter @benjy_eagle or join the thinkingcountry facebook page.