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What is education actually for? Hard Times, Part 2

2009 June 3
by Paul Vallely

In 1854 Charles Dickens published his novel ‘Hard Times’. It held up a mirror to the social and economic concerns of its age. What would Dickens have discovered if had attempted to do the same today when, after a period of careless prosperity, the nation has once again fallen upon hard times? In a six-part series, Paul Vallely revisits some of Dickens’s themes – work, education, poverty, escapism, emotional health and migration. This week, he asks whether, in recession-struck Britain, students should gain skills for work – or broaden their minds?


Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else … This is the principle on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to Facts, sir!”

 Hard Times, by Charles Dickens

Anna Scott is a final-year university student. She is 23. But she looks 14 as she shuffles into the room singing to herself and carrying a schoolbag that looks as if it has no books in it. Perhaps it’s because she’s so petite, and her beautiful face has features that are delicate and fine, like those of a porcelain doll. But perhaps it’s because of what she says.

“If Jesus were alive today – right – he’d probably be a singer. A bit like Bono, only with hair … What’s that stuff? Stringy. Dental floss. Our Jamie got us some of that the other week … ” And she is off, on an extraordinarily rhapsodic stream of consciousness which darts all over the place, mixing random detail about her dream of becoming a famous singer, the break-up of her parents’ marriage, ice cream with hundreds-and-thousands sprinkled on it, how her mother drowned her puppy in the canal and other random details of a deprived childhood in the backstreets of Salford.

It is a performance of some accomplishment. It communicates the young girl’s coarsened sensibility vividly and with real poignancy. But it never steps outside the bounds of realism. It is a triumph of frustrated inarticulacy.

Yet at the end there is no applause. That is because there are 30 other two-minute audition pieces to be seen in the darkened studio of the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester this lunch-time. There is no time for applause if all 30 are to be crammed into the hour allotted by an audience which includes two dozen busy theatrical agents. On those two minutes, the students feel, turns the outcome of their last three or four years studying at Salford University, which runs some of the most sought-after drama and media courses in the UK. There is an aptness in the location. For Manchester was the great seat of the radical utilitarian movement in the Victorian era which Charles Dickens relentlessly satirised in his novel Hard Times.

The “facts, facts, facts” approach of its protagonist, Mr Gradgrind, the novelist insisted, maimed the imagination of its citizens as surely as their bodies were damaged by the horrific conditions of the grim Manchester factories Dickens visited before writing the book.

What is education for? That is the great debate at the heart of the novel. Should schoolrooms be dominated by the analytical rationalism of the Social Darwinists of the time, who used the economics of Ricardo to defend their paying subsistence wages to their employees and Malthus’s theories on population to justify the denial of help to the weakest? Or should it, as Dickens clearly feels, celebrate fancy, fiction, poetry, art and anything else that creates a sense of wonder in the young? Today, 150 years on, with Britain immured again in hard times, that debate remains unresolved. Is education, particularly in a recession, about equipping students to get a good job? Or is it to open them to the possibilities of a fulfilled life?

The students at Salford offer interesting insights on this. “I wanted to do this particular course,” says Anna Scott, the harsh Mancunian gone from her voice. “I didn’t consider anything else. I was totally focused. I had worked in a nursery for two years but my heart wasn’t in it. Here I’m so determined. I really enjoy what I’m doing.”

Rebecca Evans, a 30-year-old mother-of-three from leafy Knutsford who has just performed the harrowing monologue of a rape victim, tells the same story. “I used to work in an office. But I wasn’t happy. I was a mortgage adviser for Freedom Finance,” she says without evident irony. “I always wanted to be an actor. I love performing. I knew if I didn’t give it a go I would always regret it.”

Michael J Fox, 21, (no relation to the Back to the Future actor who made much of his living from appearing to be 21) who has just finished an understated account of a scene from Alan Bennett’s The History Boys, is just as driven. “I arrived at university to do physics, but switched courses on the first day. I wanted to do something I would really enjoy.”

Their attitudes are typical of drama students. “The people we tend to attract are those whose passion this is to the exclusion of all else,” says their acting tutor Lisa Moore. “I can’t see the recession turning them off.” But it is a very different story at the other end of the department.

There, a group nearing the end of their final year in Media Studies are discussing their job prospects. “I just assumed I’d come to the end of the course and get a job; now it seems that’s not going to be the case,” says Sara Manning, 22, a journalism and broadcasting student. “There are just no jobs,” sighs her classmate, Cheryl Hughes, 21, “and even work experience is hard to get. Everyone is clutching at straws.”

Sara, her classmates feel, is one of the lucky ones. She has landed six weeks’ work experience on a London radio station. But though she will work from 8.30am to 7pm she will be unpaid. “But if I turned it down a hundred other people would snap it up,” she complains. “Fortunately I have parents who can support me.”

Another of the group, Faye Banham, 20, is in a similar position. She has been offered an unpaid job by a London music company. “They’ve sacked their PR assistant and they’re giving me the work. It’s unpaid, so I’ll live with relatives. If I’d known how it would turn out I would have gone straight to a similar company to start as a runner. I wouldn’t have spent £9,000 on fees here, and the rest.”

Others are turning their back on their hoped-for profession. Adam Fairclough, 21, whom his tutor describes as the best writer in the class, is going to start his own business – selling sandwiches. “My father will set me up,” he says. “I don’t regret doing the course. It’s given me an amazing range of skills – the ability to research and assimilate information, time management, working to deadlines, organisational skills. I’m much more confident and able to talk to people on different levels. But I don’t see any future in the media.”

His classmate Jack Tindall is planning to join the Army. Another of the journalism students, Laura Foster, is doing what many of her colleagues are planning, and signing up to do a postgraduate certificate to become a teacher. Applications to teaching courses are up nationally by 22 per cent and through Teach First – the prestigious scheme to take top graduates and put them in tough schools – up by a staggering 63 per cent.


New applications to universities reveal that emphases in education are shifting more generally in the recession. Figures from the admissions service UCAS show that among the 524,151 people currently applying to start full-time undergraduate courses – a total 8.8 per cent up on last year – there have been shifts away from subjects like computer sciences, where graduating students are now finding it harder to get jobs, and towards pure subjects like philosophy, astronomy, politics and economics. It is as if many in the new generation of students know there are no jobs out there and so conclude that they might as well just do a subject that really fires their interest. Philosophy, for which applications had been in decline in the 2006 figures, is up 15 per cent.

But there have also been increases in applications to very specifically vocational courses like leisure and tourism, transport, business studies, biotechnology and engineering in most branches – mechanical, chemical, process, energy and aerospace. Some students are clearly taking the contrary view and concluding that when the job market is tough the more targeted skills you have to offer the better. The most popular courses today remain vocational: law, psychology, medicine, design studies and nursing – though social work is, perhaps unsurprisingly in the light of recent controversies, down. Other subjects to which applications are down include chemistry, planning, architecture, building, manufacturing engineering and materials technology, nutrition and languages, with Japanese as an exception.

Those charged with running the system remain bullish. “In an economic downturn, investment in research, development and higher-level education by government and private enterprise is more important than ever,” says Professor Rick Trainor, the President of Universities UK and Principal of King’s College London. Applications to university are continuing to increase despite the recession because people see higher education as a worthwhile investment. “We know that as many economies continue to shift towards knowledge-based activities it is likely that a greater proportion of the workforce will need higher-level skills.”

But others question this received wisdom. Dr John White, the Emeritus Professor of Philosophy of Education at London University, has written a seminal pamphlet called What are schools for? He says that a recession is the perfect time to ask more radical questions about the purpose of education and most particularly about the curriculum taught in British schools – which he claims has been designed back-to-front.

“The academic curriculum is based fairly unquestioningly on the curriculum we inherited from the Victorians and they inherited from the Puritans of the 18th century. It goes back to the idea that, because we’re made in the image of an omniscient God, the route to personal salvation was collecting as much knowledge as possible about the glories of God’s universe,” he says.

That premise sat well with the utilitarian presumptions of the Victorians but as late as 1923 the educationalist Fred Clarke, could write “the ultimate reason for teaching Long Division to little Johnny is that he is an immortal soul”. The idea persists, though salvation is now social rather than spiritual prospect of social; stepping onto the escalator to higher education and a well-paid job is the modern counterpart.

“The National Curriculum introduced in 1988, which Ken Baker drew up on the back of a piece of paper, was virtually identical in the subjects it named with the curriculum laid down in 1904 for the newly-introduced state secondary schools,” he says. Less than 10 per cent of the population, almost all of them middle-class, went to these institutions, called grammar schools. The academic curriculum thus became a badge indicating membership, or suitability for membership, of the middle classes. Persisting with the same largely-unchanged raft of subjects has for years, he says, has made it difficult for many children not from a middle-class background to adjust to a highly academic school culture.

It means that a curriculum devised for a horse-drawn age is still at the heart of schooling in the new millennium, White says. “It has left us with the idea, for example, that you do geometry or algebra because it strengthens reasoning power. But other things can do that and I can’t think when I last used algebra. Yet the curriculum has become so embedded. The result is that children are condemned to years of study which may benefit no one at all.”

He speaks with feeling on this. White himself did medieval history at Oxford “where I had a couple of crappy tutors and it was more or less a waste of three years”. It was only after he got a job as a teacher and then went to night school, that he discovered philosophy and psychology and “found them intrinsically interesting”. It changed his life, and he is now committed to allowing others to discover what will change theirs without a false start.

“Education is intended to prepare children for adult life, but what kinds of adult lives do we want schools to prepare children for? What sort of society do we want to create for the future?” he asks. The basic aim of education, he argues, is to promote personal fulfilment, so the curriculum should surely be designed accordingly. He reels off a list of desirable qualities, including the ability of children to think for themselves, evaluate information, weigh evidence, make judgements and solve problems, communicate well and understand the ideas and events that shaped our world.

“It’s by no means self-evident that the best way to do all that is through the existing curriculum. But sadly there is not much interest [among politicians and civil servants] in what education is for,” he concludes. “Perhaps a bad recession will be the catalyst for a more fundamental rethink.”

Another philosopher at the Institute of Education at London University, Paddy Walsh, has radical thoughts on that. Instead of polarising the debate between education for employment and education for the sheer joy of learning, a middle way should be opened up.

“We may need to rediscover education for leisure as the Greeks conceived it,” he says. “Not education for unemployment, such as during the three-day week, which was a kind of defeatism. But to reverse the greater and greater subjugation of education policy to economic policy over the decades since the Thatcher era. We need to start thinking of life as more than paid work.”

At Salford they are seeing changes of a different kind. The university began as an institute of mechanics, where the emphasis was always on the practical, and that is reflected now in its approach to performance arts.

“What we are trying to produce,” says the acting tutor, Lisa Moore, herself an actress, “is the thinking performer. We want people who come here because of our links with Granada [the television company which produces Coronation Street] and the BBC and want to work on the TV soaps to leave with an understanding of a range of theories and techniques such as transactional therapy, which would enable them to do theatre in prisons and work in schools.”

Salford prides itself on its vocationalism, unlike other university drama departments which are more academic, or drama schools which focus entirely on the development of acting skills. “We’re a real world institution,” says Malcolm Raeburn, who is currently Head of Performance in the department. “It’s about acting skills; learning about production in tv and radio. It’s about building up contacts, meeting someone who’s just setting up their own theatre company, and amassing a portfolio of skills.”

Salford boasts ex-students in every major continuing drama on British television: Doctors, Emmerdale, The Street, Shameless, Hollyoaks, The Bill, Casualty and more. That package – plus the association with former students like Christopher Eccleston, Peter Kay, Jim Sturgess and Maxine Peake – ensures the department’s courses are always oversubscribed. The idea that there is necessarily a clash between art for art’s sake and art for a job’s sake is a false dichotomy, Raeburn believes. “Culture is big business now. So there isn’t a necessary clash between the imagination and running a business.”

Today’s students are well aware of that. One of the big changes in British higher education in recent times is the development of what the Salford academics call a client culture – a demand by students to get better value for money out of the university. “It has burgeoned among students since the hike in fees,” says Raeburn. Its courses now cost students £3,225 a year, as do most university courses across the country – more than double what they paid just two years ago.

“They don’t sit up all night talking about Marxism and The Velvet Underground like I did when I was at university in the 70s,” Malcolm Raeburn says. Instead they keep far more conventional hours because they spend their weekends working long hours to earn the money to make ends meet. That enhances their appreciation of the value of money and heightens their sense of the client culture. “I would expect that to get even more acute as the recession proceeds,” he concludes.

What this means is a significant change in staff-student relations. It began to alter when fees were introduced. Before that, students would come for interview for a place at university on their own. Today almost every student is accompanied by at least one parent. “It’s the parents, not the students, who ask most questions,” says Carole O’Reilly, the Associate Head of School. “They want to see what they are getting for their money.”

But the attitude soon spread to the students themselves. “They see themselves as customers,” O’Reilly says. “They expect staff to do much more for them. If they miss a lecture they expect you to have written notes to give them. They expect you to post material for their assignments for each module on the web. They expect you to make yourself available to look at drafts of their work and tell them what they need to do for a better mark. They ask ‘What do I have to do to get a first?’ and expect to be given precise instructions.”

A new attitude of entitlement is evident among the students. “You want to get your money’s worth in terms of contact time with the teachers,” says the fourth-year Michael J Fox, fresh from his History Boys scene in which, aptly enough, he plays a teacher under pressure from a pupil. “A lecturer said in a seminar the other day that, as it was a Friday, if we got through everything she would let us all go 20 minutes early; we told her we didn’t want to be done out of 20 minutes-worth of tuition we’d paid for.” It is not an occurrence which is common, it must be said. The department’s staff seem permanently run off their feet trying to meet student expectations.

Almost all the students had run up considerable debts over their three years on the course. A figure of £20,000 was the norm. “There’s a huge acceptance of the culture of debt,” says Carole O’Reilly. That chimes in with young people’s tendency to live in the moment. “Debt? It’s just numbers,” shrugs Michael J Fox. “The last figure I saw was £18,000 but I don’t think about it as money. I don’t own anything so there’s nothing to repossess.”

Yet for all that youthful bravado, Fox works long hours in the student bar whenever he can. Previously he did 9pm to 3am at weekends “but the recession means people are drinking less, so my hours have been cut”. The student playing the pupil in the scene from The History Boys, Dan McClelland, 21, does 30 hours a week as a barman. Most students spend all their weekends working, some doing heavy warehouse work. Despite that they are “constantly maxed up on the overdraft”.

What further changes will the recession bring? Since there is often an 18-month cycle in play between a young person’s decision to apply to university and the point where they actually arrive to enrol it is still too early to work out what will be the full impact of the economic crunch on higher education.

But there are already are some straws in the chill recessionary wind. Among drama applicants, says Malcolm Raeburn, who co-ordinates student admissions for his department, “there is not a lot of difference between the way the next generation of students are talking and the last”. But on the Journalism and Broadcasting course Carole O’Reilly knows he will have to make some changes, such as getting the course accredited by the National Council for the Training of Journalists, if she is to continue to attract a high number of candidates.

Over in the university’s Business School, which is unashamedly vocational in its orientation, there are signals too. “Recruitment is going well particularly for overseas students, who are benefiting from an exchange rate which is heavily in their favour,” says Tony Conway, who is Associate Head of School. (Applications to British universities from foreign students are up 12 per cent across the board.)

“Another change is that, with training budgets being cut by firms because of the downturn, more and more people are paying for their own courses,” adds Conway. “People are applying early for the one-year Graduate Certificate in Management course, which is normally done part-time by people who are in work, but which has more people not in work applying this year.” Courses like that, as well as full-time MBAs, can nicely fill a gap in the CV of a redundant executive while he or she waits for the market for their services to improve. But the true impact on the next generation of undergraduates is only beginning to be seen.


The bar is abuzz. Back at the Royal Exchange Theatre the about-to-graduate students are not thinking about stopgaps. Their eyes are fixed on a full future. After the showcase of audition pieces the performers and their friends are on a high and full of speculation about the theatrical agents who were present. Who would get signed up? It would be the next hurdle on the track to fame and fortune, or their first professional work at any rate.

They know they have done well to get this far. Only around a third of students on the courses pass the audition to enter the showcase. They are not necessarily the ones who performed best academically. “Whether you’ve got a first is irrelevant in an audition,” says Michael J Fox. “Someone last year failed loads of modules but got an agent.”

On the other hand there’s no point in putting people who aren’t strong performers in front of agents. “We can’t get a reputation for wasting their time,” says the programme leader, Malcolm Raeburn. “As it is we’re getting a better turn-out from the theatre professionals each year.”

Jennifer Edwards, 21, has just finished a brief two-hander, a scene taken from the Mike Nichols movie Closer. She had played the Julia Roberts part. She is wide-eyed with post-performance elation. “My intention was to be an actress and that’s still my intention,” she says. “Over my time at uni my confidence went down and I thought that wouldn’t happen for me but now I think it’s possible.”

Her on-stage partner, Andrew Madden, who has just taken on the Jude Law part, nods in agreement. “At least I won’t be 50 and saying I should have tried and didn’t.” Jennifer Edwards has got causal work waitressing in the Lowry theatre while she awaits the audition calls. She is optimistic, she says.

So are they all, at this apogee, though some temper their thinking with a sense of realism at the ferocity of the competition in their chosen profession.

“I’ll give it six years,” says another student, Sam Thompson. “If I can’t make something of it I’ll try for something else.” Another, Andrew Draper, says: “If nothing comes up in acting after a year, I’ll do a PGCE and go into teaching.” Some have already made a start. Anthony Winder is one of the mature students on the course. Ask what he did before and he is starkly honest.

“I was in and out of jail. I was a criminal,” he says bluntly. “I wanted to be a singer and applied for a music course but didn’t get in so I took the acting course.”

It’s easy to see why the tutors admitted him. He is one of those actors who has a powerful presence on stage, drawing the audience’s eye even when he has no lines. He exudes a brooding menace, which makes him stand out among the talented but fresh-faced middle-class youngsters who make up the majority of his class. It is perhaps why halfway through the course he was spotted by an agent and signed up. He has already been cast in a couple of adverts and a small TV part.

“I didn’t have any security as a criminal,” he says, bizarrely for someone who is about to launch himself into the most insecure occupation on the right side of the law. He has a part-time job as a cleaner to pay the bills.

“I’d like to do TV but also work with young offenders, doing drama classes in jails. But I’m sure I’ll be successful as an actor because I’ve worked so hard at it.” The logic sounds dodgy, but if determination is enough to succeed in his new profession and Winder has it in abundance.

Malcolm Raeburn laughs. “Our students don’t expect to have the same security as someone who’s going into Ernst & Young,” he says later. “But this lot have done really well. About a third of them have been approached by agents, which is not a bad hit rate.”

And what about the recession?

“It won’t really affect me,” concludes 20-year-old Andrew Madden on behalf of all of his fellows. “Having chosen to be an actor I always knew I was going to be skint anyway.”


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