A “national education system” with a
libertarian twist

A Corbynite top-down reorganisation of Britain’s education system, giving the state full control over education at all levels and for all ages, would be a terrible and frightening idea. However, what if we took the proposal and gave it a libertarian twist to inspire a genuine consumer-focused revolution in life-long learning?

Whether you hail Jeremy Corbyn as the left wing saviour of British politics or intend to hide behind the sofa on 12 September lest his election as Labour Leader ushers in a new era of Soviet communism, no one can deny that Corbyn’s candidacy has brought a certain level of partisan excitement back to drab, consensual British politics.

One of Corbyn’s more radical proposals is the creation of a National Education Service, doing for education what the NHS had done for healthcare. While failing to provide many concrete details of what this “cradle to grave” education system might look like, Corbyn did offer this glimpse:

‘Fifty years ago, the Labour government of Harold Wilson sought to address this problem for its time, and under Jennie Lee in 1965 started the work to establish the Open University – one of the most under-rated achievements of Labour in government.

Fifty years on, it is time to start putting the case for investment in learning from cradle to grave. A National Education Service would be every bit as vital and as free at the point of use as our NHS, and should be delivered by the end of the next Parliament.

[..] A National Education Service will give working age people access throughout their lives to learn new skills or to re-train. It should also work with Jobcentre Plus to offer claimants opportunities to improve their skills, rather than face the carousel of workfare placements, sanctions and despair. We need a return to ambitious joined-up government.’

It would be easy for Conservatives to dismiss this idea as the socialist ravings of an unrepentant Big Government apologist, but while Jeremy Corbyn’s ultimate vision for a joined-up National Education Service for Britain might horrify those of us who believe in individual freedom and personal responsibility; we would be missing an opportunity if we ignore Corbyn’s proposals altogether.

There is an opportunity here for the Tories to embrace the worthy ideal of education being available for all, while staying true to conservative, small government principles. After all, many small government conservatives and libertarians are squeamish about centralised, government-provided healthcare delivered by the NHS, but this doesn’t mean we are against good healthcare being available to all citizens at every stage of their lives.

So what might a National Education Service look like, if it were given a libertarian twist?

Well, for a start, almost all of the provision would be outside of the state – including primary and secondary education. Providers could and should be welcomed from every background – nonprofit groups, commercial providers, academies, charities and faith communities – so long as they maintain a commitment to provide rigorous and non-discriminatory education to every child or adult learner, drawing from best practice around the world and in full accordance with British values.

How would such a scheme work?

Parents and adult learners are most empowered when they are given true choice, and this leads almost inevitably toward some kind of voucher system. Clearly this would need to be thought through carefully, in order that the net effect of changes is cost-neutral or better. But it would seem to make logical sense for parents to be given vouchers covering the yearly cost of education at any state accredited school for each child up to the age of sixteen, and to the child themselves for their final two years (full time education to be compulsory to the age of eighteen).

Universities are currently trapped in a ghastly no-man’s land when it comes to their funding. They charge government-capped fees but also receive further government financial support – which can be turned off, like gas pipelines from Russia, if the government deems the university to be failing to hit the diversity quota of the day or other arbitrary performance metrics.

Under a Tory National Education Service, Britain’s world-leading universities should be freed from all micromanagement and allowed to take the brightest and best from any background. A certain proportion of each year’s intake should be UK students paying tuition with vouchers, and the remainder international students at market rates.

Would this mean the automatic end of tuition fees? Personally I believe that tuition fees are right and proper, as a university education confers a significant advantage on the degree holder, one which should not be subsidised by those who choose other paths. Therefore, vouchers covering university education after leaving school should be purchased by the student, with low-interest loans available to all for the purpose.

Though the mechanism would change, the outcome for the student would remain essentially unchanged – university education free at the point of use, repayable through a loan system.

Recognising the fact that our globalised world requires an adaptable workforce and that our whole society benefits when grown adults are not trapped in never-ending minimum wage drudgery, adults over the age of 25 (or 18 for non university students) should be given additional accumulative “top-up” vouchers every five years, to be saved and spent on any continuing education provision – at night school, universities or online courses – as they progress through their lives.

Under such a system, nobody would have the option of becoming dependent on welfare due to redundancy or the decline of any one specific industry, and it would never be “too late” for anyone to change careers.

The details – and the funding – for a private-run National Education Service of this type would need to be worked out in painstaking detail to prove viability. But there is a potential framework here for the state to ensure that its citizenry is well-educated and adaptable, without becoming overwhelmingly involved in the detail of what is learned or how the knowledge is delivered.

Libertarians and small government conservatives do not say that there is no role for the state, but simply that government should act small and act smart. A conservative National Education Service would recognise the necessary role that government has in ensuring a secure and prosperous society, while keeping the freedom and the responsibility for education squarely in the people’s hands.

Would such a system not be better than the status quo, with our universities semi-dependent on government funds and forced to follow government diktat, and state-run mediocrity afflicting too much primary and secondary education?

Pledging to build an NES would demonstrate that the Tories can be the “compassionate” party of social mobility, but do so without ramping up the size of the state, creating vast new bureaucracies or encouraging systemic inefficiency.

Left-wingers may hate the private provision aspect, but they will love the idea of a cradle-to-grave service available to all citizens. That might sway just enough votes to pass real education reform, the kind of Apollo Program for education that Britain needs to become the world’s premier knowledge economy.