Our report today on the impact of the pandemic shows that three-quarters of college students are between one and four months behind where they would normally be expected to be at this stage of the academic year. That‘s hardly surprising given the disruption caused by lockdowns and is reflected in similar survey data in schools as well.
Other surveys that we have conducted, along with reviews of the blended learning offer that most students have had, suggest that colleges have done a great job during the pandemic. But they have also been faced with very large numbers of their students suffering from digital poverty and not having quiet, secure spaces to learn at home from.
The good news is that the government has recognised this and appointed Sir Kevan Collins, as education recovery commissioner, to analyse, engage and propose how to ensure that young people (adults are sadly beyond his remit) can be supported going forwards. We share the desire not to victimise young people – the pandemic has undoubtedly had a negative impact on the majority in terms of educational progress as well as increased pressures of isolation, loneliness and mental ill-health. But there is time and, with the right resources, there is the wherewithal to be able to overcome those impacts, particularly if decisions are taken very soon, investment is made and actions can follow quickly.
Association of Colleges report: 77 per cent of 16-18s performing below expectations
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There will inevitably be more focus on school students than college students. Inevitably because there are more schools pupils overall, which makes them electorally more important to politicians. I want there to be a strong focus on school pupils because we must invest time, money and energy in helping them to deal with the pandemic. It’s just that I believe there is a more urgent set of Covid-recovery needs for college students – of all ages – for three simple reasons.
Why do colleges get such a raw deal on funding?
Firstly, because of the per-student funding levels that we have in education in this country, which are biased away from college students. This is not news and I have written about it many times in this column. The simple facts are that funding per student in schools up to age 16 is higher than in colleges, by around 20 per cent. The pupil premium, worth nearly £1,000 per pupil, stops, inexplicably, at age 16, as if disadvantaged young people suddenly need less support.
At age 18, for college students, the rate drops by a further 17.5 per cent. For those who have achieved a level 3 qualification, they have the option to move into higher education where the funding is significantly higher per student than for their peers who study at lower levels in colleges. For those yet to achieve a level 3, the funding is far less, which flies in the face of need and fairness. The Augar report gave the stark figure that undergraduate students have around £6,600 each spent on them, whilst college students have just over £1,000.
The impact of this under-investment hits students in many ways – fewer hours of teaching (15 hours per week compared with 25-plus in other Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development countries), less support, fewer enrichment opportunities, lower staff pay and less ability to invest in IT, equipment and capital. It’s hard to imagine a tougher set of circumstances than this for colleges to be able to continue to provide the positive student experiences and outcomes that they do. Imagine what they could do with fair investment. Just think about the impact on students and their enhanced life chances.
The second reason why I want colleges to be treated fairly in the education recovery plans is that they are vital institutions for young people and adults who will struggle in the labour market. In every recession in recent history, the evidence is unequivocal – those with the lowest qualification levels and with the least work experience fare worst. That’s why we are seeing increased numbers of people seeking higher education (in colleges and universities), because investing in a recession in your own development and qualifications is a rational path to take. Sadly and shockingly, that privilege is not open to many young people and adults who are not ready for higher education.
Many will need basic skills – literacy, numeracy, digital skills – or lower-level training, but at the moment they cannot access them because the investment is simply not there and where it is, it requires employers to offer apprenticeships or placements (traineeships, for instance). These are very unlikely to be offered in sufficient numbers for some time yet, as highlighted in Tes this week by the Institute of Directors survey.
The other barrier is that many will need to claim universal credit, which, ironically, restricts the education and training that claimants can undertake and places them on an often fruitless pursuit of jobs they are unlikely to win in a highly competitive labour market.
The third reason why I am eager to see college students featuring strongly in the education recovery plans is that we still place too much investment in higher-level learning at the expense of lower levels. I honestly cannot understand why we value achievement of a degree above and beyond the achievement of a literacy or numeracy qualification. Both need to be applauded and recognised; both open up opportunities and empower people; both require and deserve proper investment, as do other "levels" of learning in-between.
Underlying the under-investment in college students that I set out earlier is the belief in government that the return on investment of lower-level qualifications is simply not good enough. This is despite firm evidence over the years to the contrary. In the past year, we have seen the Resolution Foundation report Can training help workers change their stripes? showing a positive impact of training for unemployed adults. Last week the Centre for Progressive Policy report Skill up to level up provided evidence of the impact of lower-level skills investment on employment outcomes.
These three reasons have driven our call for an increase to funding per student to increase teaching hours, student support and enrichment; an extension of the pupil premium to age 19; a guaranteed extra year of full funding for students leaving college this summer; and more work to ensure unemployed adults can access training whilst claiming universal credit. It’s a simple list that would make an enormous impact if decisions can be made very soon. We’ve called for an extra £1.5 billion per year, which at one level feels like an ambitious ask. But it begs the question of how much we want to support the hundreds of thousands of young people and adults who will suffer greatly without it.
David Hughes is chief executive of the Association of Colleges