‘What will I learn?’ v ‘What will I earn?’

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I was interested to read John McTernan’s analysis of education statistics (Perspective, 21 November), which suggests Scottish education is failing working-class children.

There are several issues he doesn’t seem to factor in: the role of working-class parents in supporting their children to aspire to higher education; the money available for supporting full-time study; and the effort required from the young people to, in effect, level the playing field.

In the 1970s I went to 
Oxford from a working-class family. I was able to do so partly because my parents did not doubt the transition could be made.

Also, the state then offered young people financial support in the form of grants rather than loans, and not least, from the age of 14 or so, I had had to get through two to three hours of homework most nights to achieve the exam grades I needed.

I didn’t have any free time or leisure activities, and would no doubt be described today as “stressed”. I would not recommend such a life today to any young person of my acquaintance.

I think the education “problem” is wider than Mr McTernan suggests. In the current climate we have focused on its perceived extrinsic benefits, and that is getting a better-paid job.

This is clearly impossible for every graduate, given the numbers now competing for work. However, we could do more to offer educational development opportunities not just to school leavers, but to individuals of any age, working or not, who wished to take advantage of them.

We might also do more to stress the intrinsic benefits of education in developing ­better informed citizens who are empowered to make better decisions about, for example, supporting those from less privileged backgrounds to achieve a proper place in society.

(Dr) Mary Brown

Dalvenie Road


John McTernan is right to point out the long way Scotland’s universities have to go to become the meritocracy we would wish to see, where ability to learn is valued 
rather than ability to pay.

However, by suggesting, however obliquely, that students should be asked to contribute more (either through fees or a graduate contribution) risks not only jeopardising the unique nature of a Scottish university education but will do nothing to address the failings of “democratic intellect” he rightly highlights. The positive role of students, particularly 
undergraduates, within universities, is not often recognised and a change to funding would inevitably result in students being regarded as customers and not as
essential, active contributors to the collegiate body.

It would be a significant backward step were we to introduce a market within higher education where prospective students asked “What will I earn?” rather than “What will I learn?” when considering which course of study to follow.

Further, there is no guarantee that shifting costs to the individual would free up public funds.

The costs associated with maintaining loans for students in England, many of which will never be repaid, makes little financial sense and does not allow for a
significant investment elsewhere within the education system.

It is right to say that those who benefit from education should contribute towards that cost, which for individuals should be done through a progressive, income tax 

Corporation tax should also be considered, as business rightly makes the most of Scotland’s skilled workforce. All education, including university education, is a public good and as such should be paid for through the public purse.

John McTernan is right to call for an honest debate, but that debate has to be much wider than the narrow terms he has set out.

David Anderson

President, University and College Union Scotland

Castle Street