What is education for, and who pays?

By Green peer Natalie Bennett

Four hundred thousand years ago, in the East African Rift Valley, human species faced a huge threat — massive ecological change. The very foundations of their world had shifted.

What those ancient humans — individuals like you and I — did was develop new skills, new technologies, and used their creativity to develop new forms of communications. They displayed the same potential that every human being has in them today, facing a similar situation.

We face a climate emergency, our state of nature is dire, our current growth-driven economic model has left us in crisis. Massive change is needed — and we need an education system that helps people tackle the challenge, whereas today, it all too often hinders them, forcing them into narrowly defined subject boxes, cramming for exams.

Speaking yesterday in an initial House of Lords debate on the Skills and Post-16 Education Bill, I noted the astonishing lack of reference to the climate and nature challenges in the Bill, when we know the global economy will have to be a green economy. Even in the government’s own terms, there is significant competitive advantage in giving UK workers the chance to upskill in “green” areas.

And what we’re hearing from the government is a very narrow idea of what future skills are needed. There seems to be a lot of hard hats involved, and of course the ubiquitous “digital skills” — and of course we need huge improvement in skills in those areas. But equally urgent are skills in sustainable land management, nature-based solutions, ecosystem management: hard-toed boots, perhaps, but caked in healthy, life-rich soil rather than hard concrete.

Labour’s Baroness Wilcox of Newport talked about the skills plans being co-produced — while the government sees them as being “employer-led”. What’s needed is the knowledge and passion of communities, local government, educators, students — and employers. As the University and College Union notes, the “educator voice is missing” from the government’s plans.

I particularly focused on the importance of students being heavily involved. For if students are not at the heart of designing courses, then they are unlikely to meet their needs, not just for a narrow set of technical competencies, but for life — and a changing life in a fast-transforming world. And we know that young people want far more information about the climate emergency and nature crisis.

Which got us to the core of yesterday’s debate: what is education for?

The government talks just about employment — its measure of success the salary that graduates of courses earn. But we all need lifelong learning, continuing education in varying forms and fitting varying places on the government’s classifications to function in society, as community members, as voters, as parents, in the many roles crucial to our society’s future. And in a society with an epidemic of mental ill-health, we shouldn’t underplay the value of learning new skills, finding new places in society, for public health.

The other big question is “who pays?” We have already seen yet one more great privatisation in the funding of education and training.

Once its costs were met by the state, and employers. The introduction of student fees for university education laid a great — for the majority unpayable — burden of debt on individuals, when the benefit of education is to the whole of society. The sociology graduate who goes on to run a community garden, for modest financial return, is of huge value to her community, yet she’s saddled with a personal debt for the bulk of her working life.

What this bill does is further privatises the cost of education through the “lifelong loan entitlement”. Many of the imagined recipients of this will be those failed by education systems in the past — those without even basic qualifications. So they pay for the state’s failure.

Going back to the prehistory with which I started, we can imagine how those ancient people tackled their massive challenges, working together. They didn’t see their society as an economy to be served by people, not just skills for exams and jobs but skills for life, for survival and thriving in a difficult, unstable world.

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