Simon Hughes: Brexit provides opportunities for greater co-operation with Commonwealth members
Members and guests of the Council for Education in the Commonwealth attended a memorable occasion in Parliament on Wednesday last week when Sir Simon Hughes, former parliamentarian and now Head of Public Affairs at the Open University, shared with them some insights into politics, the Commonwealth and the future of education after post-compulsory schooling.
Sir Simon was joined on the platform by Valerie Davey, in the Chair, and Mark Robinson - both former Parliamentary Chairs of CEC and by Mark Williams MP, the Member of Parliament for the Welsh seat of Ceredigion and the current Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Chair of the Council.
Opening the meeting Valerie Davey observed that the CEC had been established in 1959 as a forum bringing together the worlds of politics and education in the context of Commonwealth education development and co-operation. It was a particular pleasure and honour to introduce Simon Hughes, who had been the longest-ever serving Parliamentary Chair of the Council. It was mainly to celebrate this and to record the Council's thanks to Sir Simon for his long years of dedicated service to CEC as Parliamentary Chair for quarter of a century from 1989 to 2015 that this gathering had been arranged.
Referring to Sir Simon's outstanding service to CEC, Valerie Davey noted that as its Parliamentary Chair he had always been ready to chair meetings and to offer wise advice when required. He had helped to keep issues of concern to the Council before Parliament through asking questions of Ministers, sponsoring early day motions and participating in debates. She particularly recalled him leading CEC delegations to make representations to Ministers and the Commonwealth Secretary-General.
In a wide-ranging address Sir Simon shared insights and experiences drawn from his family background, his time as a student at Cambridge; his long Westminster career; and his visits to many Commonwealth countries during his Parliamentary career and more recently.
In politics the old certainties had been replaced by periods of turbulence. Two-party politics seemed a thing of the past in many countries and electorates were increasingly disillusioned with politicians. Those in the education sector had to reflect on two uncomfortable facts that belied 20th century hopes the great expansion of education would produce a more enlightened politics. It had turned out that more education did not necessarily lead to greater political participation- younger generations in the UK were the least likely to vote. Sir Simon was particularly impressed with levels of political participation in India and the sense of civic responsibility there nor did greater educational opportunity necessarily produce people with liberal and outward-looking sympathies: many leaders of right-wing nationalist and populist parties were university graduates,
Turning to Commonwealth relations Sir Simon said the recent Referendum result provided a new spur to examine opportunities for Commonwealth co-operation building on the natural advantages stemming from past history, shared institutional patterns and a common language. Commonwealth Governments saw trading advantage in the UK remaining a member of the EU. On the other hand there has been a deep-held sense among many ordinary people that citizens from the old Commonwealth family have been unfairly treated in comparison with those from UK's new European family - resulting in a sizeable proportion of Commonwealth incomers to the UK choosing to vote 'Leave' in the referendum.
Two particular directions for closer Commonwealth co-operation were (1) emphasis on exchange and the opportunity for as many, particularly young, people to experience at first hand life in a different society and culture and (2) re-engagement of the Commonwealth Secretariat with Commonwealth higher education co-operation.
The world of post-school education was experiencing rapid change and if current trends continued it was conceivable that engaging in higher education through physical presence on a campus would become a minority occupation. The future patterns of tertiary education, making use of advances in information and communication technology that could enrich and broaden the learning experience in extraordinary new ways, would put learners much more firmly in control of their own learning programme, allowing them greater freedom to learn where and when they found convenient. Developments would include expansion of MOOCs, linking earning and work more closely, and much greater transferability of qualifications and credit recognition for prior learning of different kinds. This might be backed by the development of individual learning accounts with portable credit on which the individual learner could draw to pursue all kinds of different recognised learning programmes, whose 'price tag' might be adjusted to reflect social needs/ priorities/ shortages in different skill areas.
There was time for 15 minutes of lively discussion and questions to which Sir Simon responded. The more formal part of a notable evening was rounded off by Mark Robinson who proposed a warm vote of thanks to Sir Simon, after which discussion and debate continued in the convivial drinks Reception that followed.