The government’s academisation plans are the hottest topic in England’s education debate, but the Queen’s Speech this week touched on two important points — increased competition and greater equity — that indicate what teachers, students, and taxpayers can expect in coming years.

Broadband for All, Including Rural Homes

The Queen took a significant step in ensuring that all households in Britain have an adequate internet connection. The Broadband Universal Service Obligation — an idea which had been recently debated and failed to materialise in a meaningful way — would bring a 10Mbps bandwidth connection to all households. The Digital Economy Bill would allow everyone to apply for a connection no matter where they live, but those in the most remote areas and in difficult spots (such as on the side of a mountain) may have to pay a significant sum to see it happen.

According to Recombu, 90% of households already have access to “superfast broadband,” which is defined by the government as 25Mbps or greater. Another 8% are expected to be able to utilise superfast connections by 2018. The remainder will be able to petition a provider for 10Mbps access under the new bill, and the Electronic Communications Code (ECC) will likely be reformed to accommodate providers.

The action on ensuring broadband as a legal right in Britain comes on the heels of calls to increase economic opportunity in a rapidly-developing global landscape. Broader internet access is in line with the government’s push to make schools and classrooms more technologically capable — a process that depends, in part, on access at home. With more learning taking place online or making use of the internet, providing a guarantee of high-speed access will help rural families maintain and develop the skills sought after by businesses not just in Britain, but worldwide.

Ian King of SkyNEWS writes:

“If high-speed broadband genuinely can be rolled out to all UK households and businesses, the benefits for the UK economy will be incalculable, with many small firms, in particular, still deeply unhappy at their poor digital connectivity.”

According to the NFU, only 4% of Britain’s farmers have access to superfast broadband, which means that their children are deprived of that access as well. 12% of the nation’s GDP depends on the internet, and that figure shows every indication that it is growing.

From massive open online courses (MOOCs) to skill-specific courses, broadband access will connect those in search of better education to what they need. Enrichment activities will come more easily for students, while adults most in need will have greater freedom to re-train for new careers and pursue additional certifications.

Just weeks ago, the last segment of Britain’s population was set to be disappointed as the government said that it would not extend high-speed internet service to the final 5% because they did not want to be connected. Christopher Hope and Christopher Williams of The Telegraph write that:

“High speed broadband is an essential service alongside water, electricity and gas. This is a view shared by Ofcom, the regulator; but countryside communities know full well that, compared to urban areas, the service they put up with is often dire, making it impossible to complete basic tasks, let alone run a digital business.”

The education sector — that part of society on which the economy depends — will be better off for the change.

More UK Universities, More Options

On the opposite end of the spectrum from rural life stand Britain’s vaunted higher education institutions — and there may be quite a few more of them in coming years.

Historically, it’s been difficult to open up a university; it’s a more onerous, lengthy process, and more regulated, than debuting a high street retail shop. But a new Office for Students, which will be the result of a merger between the Higher Education Funding Council for England and the Office for Fair Access, will take on the business of degree-granting permissions that will be extended to a more open marketplace. The bill says:

“The OfS may make arrangements for a scheme to give ratings to English higher education providers regarding the quality of, and standards applied to, the higher education that they provide where they apply for such a rating.”

The goal is to jump-start innovation and broaden access to higher education by tapping a wider range of stakeholders. Vetted institutions would be allowed to hand out credentials immediately, then undergo a three-year probationary period before being fully-approved. It’s meant to harness the power of the market, but Labour doesn’t see it that way.

Shadow Higher Education Minister Gordon Marsden sees a series of potential pitfalls in the process:

“It is still unclear what resources the proposed Office for Students will have to police this process. What if the problems weren’t picked up until, say, 18 months of students working for their degree? The [government] White Paper chirrups “the possibility of exit is natural part of a healthy market”, but students aren’t market traders. They don’t easily slip a second time into the womb of higher education when let down by that shiny new market.”

Scepticism abounds due in part to a desire to protect the United Kingdom’s higher education global ‘brand,’ but also because of failures elsewhere. For-profit, non-traditional universities in the United States have experienced mixed success. Corinthian Colleges, a chain that included Everest, Weald and WyoTech, is out of business, with the United States government undergoing a loan forgiveness program to aid students who were defrauded. Restitution and penalties are costing Corinthian over $1 billion.

Pushback from increased tuition fees may be quelled by increasing competition, which the government hopes will help keep costs under control, if not reduce them. Graduates in the UK leave university an average of £44,000 (~$64,000 USD) in debt — the highest in the English-speaking world, beating out Australia, Canada, and the United States.

Sorana Vieru, the vice-president of the National Union of Students, thinks that it’s a mistake:

“The government should urgently reflect on this and drop this muddled proposal.”

Details on the initiatives are scant, but the concept is clear: increase competition and remove barriers.

A focus on delivering more and better services in two very different areas — rural broadband and higher education — may be the right combination of interventions needed to boost economic equity across Britain. Execution, however, is everything, and a tally of this session’s successes and failures will provide an instructive preamble to Black Rod’s next door-knocking.

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