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UK falling behind in ‘global race’ due to education spending cuts

Cuts to British education budgets, under the guise of ‘austerity’, will damage the nation’s influence on the world stage and hold back economic recovery – warns Sally Hunt

Former British secretary of state for education David Blunkett once put forward a broad definition of adult learning that encompassed the value of learning for cultural and social enrichment as well as economic development, when he said: “As well as securing our economic future, learning has a wider contribution. It helps to make ours a civilised society, develops the spiritual side of our lives and promotes active citizenship. Learning enables people to play a full part in their community. It strengthens the family, the neighbourhood and consequently the nation.”

It makes sense to invest in education. In the first decade of this millennium, more than half the annual gross domestic product growth in the United Kingdom was related to labour income growth among people with higher education. Students in further education colleges generate an additional £75bn for the economy over their lifetimes and university graduates generate an additional £55,000 through paying higher tax and social contributions, which far outweighs the public cost of their education.

Access to education is absolutely vital if we are to equip people with the tools they need to get on in life and education remains the closest thing we have to a silver bullet when it comes to social mobility. The British Prime Minister David Cameron talks at length about the need for Britain to be able to compete in the global race and play a full part in a future that is about high-skill jobs at the cutting edge of new technologies.

Research from the King’s Fund think-tank showed that people with no qualifications were more than five times as likely as those with higher education to engage in poor lifestyle choices including smoking, excessive alcohol use, bad diet and low levels of physical activity. Prisoners who do not take part in education are three times more likely to be reconvicted than those that do.

The British government says it is sticking to tough austerity measures because it does not want to saddle our children with the debts we refused to clear. The increase in university fees to £9,000 a year is actually costing the country more money than it saves in short term as the money for the fees is being leant to students.

Furthermore, the increased fees will saddle young people with debts and recent evidence suggests parents and grandparents are using their savings to try and lighten the burden. Cuts to further and higher education, under the guise of austerity, risk doing great damage to our ability to remain key player on the global stage. Getting rid of the education maintenance allowance for teenagers and other financial support for people aged 24 and above wanting to study in further education colleges makes staying on or returning to learning much harder. We need our best and brightest to have access to the courses that most suit their talents, not simply ones they can find in budget.

The United Kingdom government and all politicians have many warm words when it comes to the importance of education and how to improve social mobility. Unfortunately those words look rather hollow when put up against the changes that are being made to how education is funded. If we are not prepared to match other countries’ spending plans then it is sadly inevitable that we will fall behind in any global race.

Sally Hunt is General Secretary of the University and College Union, in the United Kingdom

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