Pete Glatter Archive   |   Trotskyist Writers Index  |   ETOL Main Page

Pete Glatter

Second Class Students

(April 1971)

From Survey, International Socialism, No.47, April/May 1971, pp.12-13.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Recent strikes and sit-ins in polytechnics have pointed to the growth of a student movement outside the universities. And no wonder. Even forgetting about the coming growth of this sector of the binary system (the division of higher education into ‘first class’ universities and ‘second class’ polytechnics, technical colleges, colleges of education and of further education), its state at the moment is little short of chaotic. The living and working conditions of non-university students are often quite appalling.

In one London polytechnic, a quarter of all first year students have no grant. They must support themselves by doing part-time jobs as well as full-time study. There are strong indications that the proportion in the second year is even higher. This polytechnic is to have 10,000 students by 1975.

Accommodation problems are another hazard. At one polytechnic, about 40 business students were told not to come at the beginning of this year as there was nowhere for them to stay. At this institution, about half a dozen students were to be found sleeping regularly every night in the students unions office until a burglar alarm system was put in there recently. At another, where 120 students were unhoused for at least a month at the beginning of the year, they sleep in local church halls. At Enfield Technical College a scheme for student flats submitted by a local builder was turned down by the Conservative-dominated council ‘unwilling, themselves, to provide the much needed living facilities.’ [1] By contrast, every university has at least 30% campus residence, and an approved lodgings scheme.

If students manage to get over their accommodation problems then there is always the library problem. The average expenditure per full-time university student on library books is £20 per annum. For polytechnic students it is £9. In many colleges of education it is even less. [2] In universities, the number of library books per student works out at about 150. In the polytechnics it works out at about 14 – over ten times less! In one polytechnic, work began on erecting a large tower block before the authorities had settled their expansion priorities. Eventually, most of the new block was given over to various kinds of management courses, with three floors to be used as a library. There is not yet enough money available to get enough books for it; the result – row after row of empty shelves. The shortage of books is so bad that a sociology book club has been started up. Membership costs £5 in the first year, £3 in the second, and £1 in the third. Its members are therefor paying £9 for something that should have been free in the first place!

Given these kinds of conditions it is hardly surprising that the proportion of students using one polytechnic library declines from 50 per cent in the first year to 20 per cent in the second. Nor is the high drop-out rate compared with that of the universities surprising. After all, the average expenditure for a full-time university student is £1,055 a year, as against only £319 for non-university students. [3] At the same time, the trend towards more vocationally oriented courses and crudely utilitarian ‘education’ continues. One outcome of the changing demand is a 4.6 per cent unemployment rate among all sociology graduates. More significant is the generous dowry that goes with the ‘marriage’ of polytechnics with industry.

In May 1966, the then Labour government announced its intention of making the polytechnics into the apex of the non-university sector of higher education. The emphasis was to be on teaching as opposed to research, and on extremely close links with industry and commerce.

Every polytechnic now has an Industrial Liaison Officer (ILO), one of whose functions is to arrange placements for students in the third year of four-year degree courses. This means that the student takes a one-year job on the ILO’s advice in a concern of either local or national importance. The student gets a maintenance grant from his local council, so the employer gets a year’s skilled labour for nothing. The ILO’s also run what amounts to a free assessment system of students as potential employees for interested firms. It is estimated that the ILO in Kingston Polytechnic has helped local firms realise ‘benefits’ to the tune of £50,000. This is by no means the only example of the direct subordination of education to industry. Since 1966, the Department of Trade and Industry has set up seventeen Advisory Centres in various institution of higher education. These provide courses and advisory and demonstration services for industry on all aspects of low-cost automation. The response of one polytechnic authority to the opening of such a centre helps one to appreciate the true meaning of sycophancy.

‘A list is now being compiled of senior executives from the larger firms in the area which will form the basis for invitations to the opening ceremony. This is seen to be an opportunity to bring influential industrialists into the polytechnic. If you wish any of your contacts to be included in the list of guests for the opening ceremony, please contact Dr Lawley.’ [4]

Some firms especially the larger ones, will go so far as to sponsor students – with more money than they could hope to get from their local councils – if it is ‘the only way to guarantee that a college gets the minimum number of students required to launch a course which the firm sees as necessary.’ [5]

Bad conditions for the students, excellent ones for industry. This is the atmosphere in which ‘the polytechnics have the task of making the application of knowledge respectable.’ [6] This is what the so-called ‘philosophy of relevance’ really means. As one educationalist has written, in a tone filled with joyous anticipation, ‘even arts courses can be beamed towards employment.’ [7] Educational priorities are rapidly becoming indistinguishable from those of industrial competition.

The majority of students are against the binary system, even according to National Union of Students officials, and are certainly against the way it is run at the moment. But this carries very little weight among ‘progressive’ educationalists. For these, universities should be concerned with ‘pure’ knowledge and research, intellectual speculation and the production of progressively smaller elites of ‘apprentice scholars.’ Polytechnics and the like, however, must busy themselves with solving the social and economic problems of British capitalism through the training of ‘apprentice industrialists.’ [8] This is justified ideologically in with the educational philosophy of an earlier, crisis-ridden age. The ideal of vocational education becomes that ‘work should be transformed with intellectual and moral vision and thereby turned into a joy, triumphing over weariness and its pain.’ [9] The object for change becomes, not the nature of work itself, but the attitude of the individual towards it. Opposition is condemned as the product of ‘unpractical revolutionary ideas, controlled by no sympathetic apprehension of the real workings of trade conditions.’ [10]

The recent sit-in at North Western Polytechnic in London must be set against this background. The appointment of Professor Miller as Director has a significance far beyond the fact of his past at University College, Rhodesia. Student Union leaflets make this quite clear. The main issues are

  1. the way in which Miller was appointed (i.e. no account being taken of student opposition) and
  2. the fact that Miller supports the continuation of the elitist binary system, is extremely ignorant (he didn’t even know that CNAA stood for Council for National Academic Awards), and has been quoted as saying that the present student representation figure of 40 per cent ‘is far too high.’

Miller’s appointment, if effective, would be another step on the road to degrading even further this kind of second-class education. As one leaflet at the polytechnic puts it: ‘It is not only to keep Miller out but for the future of polytechnics throughout the country, for democratic participation of students and staff against incompetence and the autocratic board of governors.’

The Miller issue is enormously important for this whole sector of higher education. First of all because of the effect that expansion is already having. Overcrowding is accompanied by impersonality. Courses become more narrowly vocational. Broader subjects like sociology or liberal studies are already beginning to come up for the chop. The vocations themselves are becoming far less attractive. And often less easily obtainable. The status of skilled and white-collar employment goes down as it expands. Many students are heading for jobs which are moving towards, or already being absorbed into, the conditions of working-class life. That life is not improving. The qualifications for it are simply going up.

Secondly, there is the scale and effects of future expansion. As the Robbins Report pointed out, ‘progress – and particularly the maintenance of a competitive position – depends to a much greater extent than ever before on the skills demanding special training.’ [11] The need to remain internationally competitive has imposed special tasks on education and training. In 1970, for instance,there were twenty-eight Industrial Training Boards devising and approving training schemes for industries covering fifteen million workers’ they had already spent £120 million by the year ending in March 1968.

For second-class education, this would not mean expansion so much as explosion. The polytechnics already account for one-half of all full-time students. The relative number of university students had already declined from 69 per cent in 1957/8 to 53 per cent in 1967/8. In that year, under 40 per cent of all students were at university. Over the next ten years, the most dramatic increase in student populations will be in polytechnics, technical colleges, and colleges of further education. [12]

The costs of expansion on this scale will not easily be borne by a country already suffering more than most from inflation, however necessary they may be in the long-term interests of competition. Both major parties are committed to holding down public expenditure, and there is less leeway for financial policies in this sector now than in the early sixties. According to one educationalist, if no detailed ten-year plan for education is drawn up, or if the economy continues to stagnate, British capitalism will simply not be able to afford such costs. [13] At the moment, we have both stagnation and no plan. Not only that, but viable ideas on how to expand and economise at the same time are pretty thin on the ground. Such as they are, they all rest on the perspective of an effective attack on the standards and conditions of students in the fastest-growing sector – that outside the universities.

Cutting labour-costs is the first priority. At the moment, the polytechnics can boast a slightly higher staff/student ratio than the universities. They also have to pay their younger staff more on average, so as to keep them. Suggested lines of attack here include allowing the ratio to decline, raising the number of face-to-face teaching hours, and – perhaps more as sugar on the pill than anything else – encouraging the use of films and tapes. The Open University is a test-bed for this, as it may also be for new kinds of correspondence courses. Secondary economies on capital costs may include the extension of the academic year and shorter degree courses. The cost of residence (mainly at universities and colleges of education) could also be cut by ‘encouraging’ students to live at home during their time of study. [14]

Attacks like this are and will be an important focus of student politics. They constitute an attempt to subordinate directly more and more of the student’s life to purely capitalist ends. But the fact that such attacks have to be made indicates that education is one more area in which capitalism cannot solve its own problems. A narrow job-orientation makes it impossible ‘to hand over, progressively the control of the learning sequence to the. learner himself.’ [15] This is also symptomatic of the permanence of the general attack on students. Non-university students share far more day-to-day common problems than those inside the universities. And the attack on them is the most serious by far. These are conditions rather different to those in which previous sporadic struggles have taken place. The offensive is a permanent one. The only alternative to a permanent fight back now is real and lasting defeats.



1. Enfield Technical College, S.U. Handbook 1970/1, p.36.

2. NUS, Polytechnic Libraries Campaign. For each polytechnic of 2,000 or more students, the Library Association recommends an annual expenditure on books and periodicals of £60,000. The actual average is £25,782. The average university keeps 555,194 volumes in stock. For the polytechnics the figure is 42,287.

3. The Binary System, NUS 1970.

4. Kingston Polytechnic, Diary, No.6/71.

5. R. Sheldon (Ford Motor Co.), Industry Tests the Product, Times Educational Supplement, Extra, 4.12.70, p.36.

6. G. Brosan et al., Problems and Policies in Higher Education, p.72.

7. R. Rickett, Future Pattern of Degree Work, T.E.S. Extra, p.3l7

8. G. Brosan, Relevant, Proactive, Involved, ibid., p.34.

9. A.N. Whitehead, The Aims of Education and Other Essays, London 1929, pp.67-8.

10. Ibid., p.68.

11. The Robbins Report, 1963.

12. G. Brosan et al., op cit.

13. Ibid., p.35.

14. Ibid.

15. R. Borger and A. Seaborne, The Psychology of Learning, p.230.

Pete Glatter Archive   |   Trotskyist Writers Index  |   ETOL Main Page

Last updated: 29.3.2008