The Augar review was released earlier this week and with it, probably one of the most forthright calls for parity between FE and HE that I’ve ever known from the political sphere. The report and its recommendations (such as the lifelong learning fund, the £1 billion injection of cash and an appeal for the recognition that the sector has been sorely denied for a decade) kind of…well…threw me a tad.
For someone who’s tried to do his tiny little bit to talk up the sector, I’d almost resigned myself to the fact that FE’s unfair and inaccurate position as an educational "other" in the wider discourse was, and would forever be, a constant.
Punching the air
It’s a rare occurrence that an official educational remit acknowledges FE’s existence, let alone advises that it be promoted through long-term funding and other positive moves, and I’m hoping beyond hope that this may represent the start of a period of repair to the sector that has been treated with thinly-veiled indifference for so long.
However, although the recommendations have me punching the air and looking forward to the prospect of at least a chance of a brighter future in FE, my optimism has been slightly tempered by the framing of these benefits as overdue in comparison with a time of relative prosperity that has been bestowed upon higher education.
It’s pretty much a fact that when you look at issues of funding and other indicators, FE has suffered inordinately more than HE, and this is very much highlighted in the review. Now, as much as I want recognition for the sector that was my home-team for more than a decade, I worry that there’s a certain spin to the report that places FE and HE in opposition and, to an extent, competition.
Offsetting opposition to HE cuts
Now, you could argue that’s been happening for years, with various encroachments and crossovers. Even so, it hasn’t been so explicitly highlighted before in such an official and public way. Which makes the awful cynic in me wonder that perhaps this is an attempt to offset any public opposition to cuts to HE by emphasising the discrepancy and therefore offering a narrative that it is merely a justified rebalancing as FE has had it so hard.
I don’t know, I might just be donning my conspiracy sunglasses due to the fact that I’m so unused to those in power publicly supporting FE, therefore I automatically assume that there must be some devilish sleight of hand going on in the upper echelons of power.
FE should be properly funded as it’s an essential route to education and training for so many, and I hope it will be. But it shouldn’t be used as a reason to diminish another sector for some strange notion of fairness as that would be yet another form of exploitation and we’ve had more than enough of that, thank you very much. Pitting one sector against another in the public consciousness doesn’t sit well with me. FE deserves to be treated with respect on it’s own terms. As does every other sector.
Tom Starkey is an education writer and consultant