Skip to main content

Why should FE seek ‘parity of esteem’ with HE?

Instead of aiming for equal status between colleges and universities let’s focus on what makes further education special in its own right

Robert Burns poems

Some phrases are used so often in education that we have totally forgotten what they mean. The best example of this is the empty bubble that is “parity of esteem”.

Politicians and policymakers often talk about a need for “parity of esteem” between academic and vocational routes, or between university and college. But what do they actually mean by “esteem” – and who, or what, is it that we should be seeking parity with?

I care very deeply about the vocational education sector, and about making sure that young people are aware of the multitudinous brilliant options available through apprenticeships and college courses.

I buy into the whole shebang – lock, stock and barrel. So much so, in fact, that I have friends who are keeping me away from their secondary school-aged children for fear that I will talk them out of the lovely school-university-accountancy route they have mapped out. And I would. I really would.

However, what I do not buy into is the idea of seeking some elusive “parity of esteem”, for a whole range of reasons. For starters, extensive research carried out for our feature has uncovered no clear definition of what “esteem” actually is. Is it “reputation”? Or “standing”? Or is it somehow linked to “self-esteem”?

And this idea of parity – who is, in fact, seeking it? The apprentice who told me she has been promoted twice in the course of her apprenticeship and now carries more responsibility than many of us were trusted with for a decade or so into our careers? Or the university making unconditional offers and lowering its entry requirements to fill courses at the last minute, creating all sorts of trouble for the neighbouring college? By saying something ought to seek “parity”, you are already implying it is not of equal value. And who, if anyone, gains from society seeing a vocational education and an academic one as equal?

There are, of course, things for which the further education sector should seek parity. Funding levels, for one. The quality of careers advice is another. Those things are for policymakers to change. But “parity of esteem” is not on that list. Policy in the UK is too short-term to be able to grow and nurture anything, let alone sustain its reputation. And funding for FE is too meagre to enable institutions to breathe and develop in a way that would allow them to do so.

Parents are rarely exposed to positive FE role models, and very few schoolteachers have come through the college route. You cannot legislate for that.

As one expert pointed out to me this week, society’s seeming lack of “esteem” for bankers does not stop parents seeking a career in finance for their children over much more “esteemed” but less well-paid professions, such as teaching or nursing. This is because money matters and that will not change.

And so, instead, we talk about “parity of esteem” to make ourselves feel better. There is no more money, and colleges have been struggling to make sure that they can break even at the end of the year. But we talk ourselves into believing that there is some sort of natural equilibrium we can achieve if we just try hard enough.

That’s entirely the wrong way to go. If we want to provide the country with the skills it desperately needs, we need to fund FE properly. The Scottish Funding Council’s 2017 survey of the condition of college estates, for example, estimates that the backlog of repairs and maintenance will cost up to £360 million over five years.

Let’s put cash into those parts of the education system that are engines of social mobility and can boost skills at all levels. Let’s show the excellence out there and celebrate the choices open to young people. Ultimately, let’s forget talk about parity and, instead, embrace the glorious difference.


This article originally appeared in the 1 February 2019 issue under the headline “Praise FE on its own terms instead of grubbing around for ‘parity’”