I read yesterday that Sunderland University is reducing its courses to the purely vocational. No more modern languages course, no history course, no philosophy course. Nothing but the purely utilitarian, preparing students directly for the world of work. Something occurred to me and so I looked up Sunderland University on the internet.
As I suspected, it began life as a college of technology. Well, really I suspected it might have begun life as a polytechnic but in fact it was a step further down the food chain, the pecking order of further education establishments.
When I was a teenager applying for university only 5% of us went off to study at degree level. Most of us, the 5% that is, went to universities. A few, not achieving the grades for university course, went to polytechnics. Six years behind me, my sister opted for a polytechnic course because she did not want the traditional modern languages course I had followed and certain polytechnics were offering innovative modern languages courses. In 1992 the polytechnics became independent universities, most of them changing their names to reflect their new status. Some cities ended up with two or more universities.
Then colleges of technology, which formerly had offered diploma courses in vocational areas, began to offer degree courses as well. Some of them offered these courses in specific subject areas. And so, as a tutor in sixth form colleges, I found myself with students applying to Bolton University, formerly Bolton College, to study for degrees in IT.
Gradually the former polytechnics and colleges of technology expanded their repertoire and offered a wider range of courses, offering possibilities to students who perhaps could not afford to move away from home. After all, in the end a degree is a degree whether you get it from an old traditional university or from a former polytechnic or college of technology. A snob might notice a difference but in most fields it doesn’t matter.
And now it seems that financial pressures are such that institutions such as Sunderland University are being forced back to their roots in a way. They are not alone in bringing in such restrictions. The sixth form college where I worked before I retired no longer offers the range of modern foreign languages at A Level that I worked so hard to extend during my time there. It’s no longer financially viable.
Little by little we are heading for a situation where only the wealthy will be able to have a fully rounded education. The rest will be pushed into purely vocational areas and our society will be socially poorer as a result.
Still, it could be worse. We still have maternity and, in some cases, paternity leave. This article tells us that the US is one of only three countries in the world not to offer statutory paid maternity leave.
“If you look at paid leave rates between white families and families of colour, it’s even worse,” said one spokesperson. “Parents just can’t afford to stay home with their babies.”
One young mother returned to work two weeks after giving birth by Caesarian section. She had left her previous job around a month before the birth, and said that financially she had no option but to find a job.
“We had two dollars left in our bank account. I remember thinking to myself, had I not been working, my [rent] cheque would have bounced and we wouldn’t have had a place to live.”
Working shifts of up to 12 hours, she found the separation from her newborn agonising.
And don’t get me started on childcare costs! Life is unfair!