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Taking action in higher education

UCU warns minister that lifelong learning must mean opportunity for all

25 September 2006 | last updated: 15 December 2015

UCU joint general secretary, Paul Mackney, told a packed meeting at the Labour Party conference on Monday afternoon that UCU members in further education are 'the catalyst to improve the lives of so many people who have otherwise been written off.'

Speaking from the panel of UCU's fringe meeting, entitled 'Plumbing not Pilates - is learning just for earning?', Mr Mackney said that a broad education was what people need if the country is going to move forward in the knowledge economy.

Mr Mackney's comments sparked a lively debate with fellow panelist, Bill Rammell MP, the further and higher education minister. Mr Rammell said the government recognised the benefits learning provides and that it should not just be seen as a route to a better wage. The interference from employers in the debate about what people should prompted Mr Mackney to call on them to put up cash to ensure people could afford to be properly trained, and for new legal and fiscal measures to ensure they did.

The minister said Britain's skills base was not good enough and that has a huge impact on the economy and holds families back. However, he said that the cash in the further education sector could only stretch so far and certain areas had to receive priority, although he recognised that the government needed to be helping people from all backgrounds whatever their age.

Mr Mackney told the minister that many young people become disenfranchised with the education system, often because they did not enjoy their time at school. He said that many young people often want, and need, a break from education to be able to appreciate its value later in life when they realised it is their passport to improving their options in life.

Moving on to discuss academic pay, Mr Mackney warned Mr Rammell that the nation would never be reskilled with 'an underpaid and demotivated workforce.'

UCU executive member, Dr Gill Howie, warned the audience about the influence business and market forces are having on higher education. She said increasingly business was being invited to input into degree programmes ahead of academics. She also revealed that 10 per cent of scientists had been asked to modify their findings by financial backers.

Questioning the value of a degree Dr Howie joked that lecturers could be superfluous. 'Students that fail to obtain a first class degree or an upper second are considered to have failed the department. Therefore it is in the department's interest to award them with top degrees. We might as well give all students a first or a 2:1, tell a few jokes and keep on top of our emails,' she said.

The other panelists were:
Gemma Tumelty, president National Union of Students
Neil Churchill, head of communication Age Concern

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