19 December 2012

Unrepresentative representation

I've heard it said that with a local councillor, a directly-elected MSP, several local list MSPs, a Westminster MP and an MEP in Europe, us Scottish people are better represented today than we have ever been.  But is that the case?  Commenters have noted that as populations have grown (and as the vote has been extended to commoners, women, and then younger people) the number of people represented by any individual politician has increased.  How can one person represent thousands of very different people?

When we consider also that most of these politicians represent a handful of major parties and are in many ways mere figureheads for "party policy", in the end you have 6 or 7 manifestos representing the entire population of the UK.  Clearly, they can't serve the public will.

When Thatcher wanted to dismantle union power in the 70s and 80s, she missed a trick: if there's one thing that democracy has taught us, it's that the best way to beat collective bargaining is by granting power to a representative body, rather than by taking it away, because the more diverse a group represented by a body, the less the body is representative of the group.

So you're probably asking yourself what this is doing on a language learning blog....

Well, it's not a language issue per se, but it is an education issue.  It's an issue for universities, and for education funding.  In my opinion, one of the worst things to happen to post-school education in the UK was when the technical colleges were given incentives to become new universities.  The line between vocational and academic education was blurred unnecessarily.  Do hairdressers need 4-year degree?  Few people would genuinely say they do.  And university education aims to build learner independence, when vocational education relies very much on supervised, hands-on training.

The two things are very different, and rather than grant vocational education the respect that it deserved in and of itself, they tried to make out it was something it wasn't.

Who is there today to campaign for a reversal of bad decisions?  No-one.

Why?  Representation.

University teachers' unions represent university teachers in all types of institution, and students' unions represent students in all types of institutions.  This means that neither the students' group or the teachers' groups are able to stand up and point at one group of universities and say "they shouldn't be universities".  It's pretty much impossible for these bodies to argue against any government policy (except across-the-board budget cuts) as any change will be beneficial for some of their members, and it's pretty much impossible to campaign for any new policy as it would likely be detrimental to some of their members.

The unions have therefore been given more and more representational power, leading to them rendering themselves powerless, and the government is free to do whatever they like.  Even where protests have led to changes in policy, this usually on delays matters by a year or two and the changes happen anyway.

So you may be wondering why this topic came up all of a sudden.

I recently received an email from a university advertising a couple of new CPD certificates they were offering.  For those of you who don't know, CPD stands for "continuing professional development", and is essentially means "job-related training courses".  It is all right and proper that universities should be seeking to earn additional income from the professional training market, and I have no problem with that.  These CPD certificates were built on modules in the university's degree scheme.  It is all right and proper that universities should be seeking to reuse existing material in new ways, and I have no problem with that.

What I do have a problem with is the fact that these modules were priced at the standard cost of a Scottish Higher Education module.  Presumably, then, the university is offering professional training, but putting it through the system as higher education and claiming government funding for it.

I contacted the student president for the institution to express my concerns about this, and he leapt to their defence.  Everyone has a right to an education, he told me.  Now I agree with this, but everyone should have the same right as everyone else.  Why should certain people get government funding for their CPDs when other people don't?  All in all, this seems like fiddling the books to me.

But in the end it doesn't matter what he personally believes, because he is duty-bound to represent all matriculated students at his institution.  (I did point out to him that the CPD students aren't students until they actually sign up, but that's not the main point.)

What we have here, then, is a situation where a small group are benefitting from special treatment at the cost of an education budget with a specific goal, but no-one is able to raise an effective protest against the misuse of funds because everyone represents someone who benefits from it, even though it is to the detriment of most of the people they represent.

How can we defend free education when we aren't able to denounce those who harm the system?

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