Witnessing Theresa May at the launch of the Augar review into post-18 education this morning, as she gave a passionate speech about why further education was vital to the UK, was a surreal experience. I found it exhilarating and galling in equal measure. To explain why, allow me to briefly recap the history of this problematic initiative.
Back in February 2018, the prime minister launched the review of post-18 education and funding.
This didn’t happen at a Russell Group university. Rather, the prime minister chose an FE college. While Derby College’s stunning Roundhouse certainly made for an impressive backdrop, the choice of venue was intended to make a statement about what May wanted the review to achieve: redressing the age-old imbalance between HE and FE.
In the FE sector, this move went down well. When I brought this up in my opening speech at the Tes FE Awards 2018, which took place later that week, it was greeted with thunderous applause. Was a prime minister actually taking FE seriously for once?
Does the review augur well?
Today, the review process came to a close, with the independent panel’s report finally being published. And, on the face of it, it’s tempting to conclude that it turned out rather well for the FE sector. The report calls for a major rebalancing of the post-18 landscape. The copious list of recommendations includes plenty of ideas which have been warmly received in the world of further education.
- At least £1 billion in capital funding for colleges.
- Reversing the five-year-old cut to per-student funding for 18-year-olds.
- All individuals being entitled to their first "full" level 2 and 3 qualifications for free.
- A lifelong-learning loan allowance for courses at levels 4, 5 and 6 for non-graduates.
- Three-year adult education budget allocations.
Check, check, check, check, check. The list of recommendations even included some extra treats few had seen coming; granting the term “college” with similar protection afforded to “university”, for instance.
So far, so good. At first glance, the impressive, evidence-packed report had more than fulfilled its promise, as far as boosting the status of the FE sector was concerned.
The elephant in the room
There’s an elephant in the room, though. And it’s a bloody big one at that. And no blame can be laid at the door of review chair Philip Augar, education secretary Damian Hinds or, arguably, even the prime minister herself. The problem, rather, is that rug was whipped out from beneath the post-18 review before the ink was even dry.
There are two main reasons for this. First, as the infamous note left in Treasury by departing chief secretary Liam Byrne back in 2010 put it: “There’s no money left.”
One of the main reasons why the review took a good six months longer than expected was that it ended up being stymied by the separate review being carried out by the Office for National Statistics on how to reclassify student debt. The upshot was that the national deficit will end up being swollen by £12 billion a year – more than the DfE currently spends on colleges, school sixth forms, apprenticeships and adult education combined. Accordingly, the prospect of a once-in-a-generation influx of cash to transform the FE sector was, at a stroke, made infinitely less likely, by factors completely outside the panel's control.
Second, our nation’s government, as you may well have noticed, has effectively ground to a halt. The Conservative government’s failure to command a substantial parliamentary majority (even with the help of its £1 billion agreement with the DUP) – let alone keep its own MPs in check when it comes to trying to work out a solution to how to deliver Brexit – has created a political stalemate. Policy work on anything but Brexit has virtually ground to a halt (with the honourable exception of T levels).
The ultimate upshot of this is that while May will be clearing her desk at 10 Downing Street within weeks, and leaving her successor (whichever of the growing field of candidates it may end up being) to decide which – if any – of Augar's recommendations will be put into practice.
How this will play out is anyone’s guess. Contender Sajid Javid was quick to publicly stress the importance of FE today.
I went to a Further Education college so know just how vital they are. Different views being expressed on #AugarReview but we should all agree it’s right it emphasises Lifelong Learning and importance of FE. It was a huge priority for me as Business Sec and would be if I were PM— Sajid Javid (@sajidjavid) May 30, 2019
One would hope that his rival Matt Hancock, as a former skills minister, would be equally sympathetic. However, it’s hard to imagine FE being such a priority for Boris Johnson, say, or Dominic Raab.
The worst case scenario is that the compelling vision for “reinvigorating FE” and placing at the heart of post-18 education which May laid out so impressively this morning will never amount to anything more than words in a speech.
And, it has to be asked: why has it taken so long for May to develop this appreciation in the power of FE? Especially given she has been part of successive governments that have overseen funding for 16-18 students dropping by 18 per cent in real terms between 2010-11 and 2018-19. For her to have finally had a Damascene conversion only when her imminent exit from Downing Street has been confirmed and – let's be blunt – she has zero power with which to do anything about it feels incredibly cruel for those who have campaigned long and hard to raise the profile of the sector.
To witness a serving prime minister (albeit one in the final days of her premiership) using a major speech to wax lyrical about the importance of FE this morning was a genuinely exciting experience. It inspired similar feelings of disbelief to those I encountered in response to watching my football team, Burnley, qualifying for European competition last summer for the first time in more than half a century after decades of underachievement.
(This isn’t a parallel that I want to dwell on: Burnley ended up being dumped out of Europa League competition in the qualifying rounds, not even making it through to the competition proper. Here’s hoping that the dream of a revitalised and respected FE sector isn’t extinguished quite so quickly.)
Like any true football fan, I still have hope – even against the odds. It would take a determined new prime minister to completely ignore all of the recommendations from such a major report (although the current front runner Boris Johnson, for one, isn't exactly renowned for a level-headed, evidence-based approach to policy). More likely, perhaps, is that some proposals will be enacted while others will never been seen again.
Given the political wilderness in which FE has existed for some many years, things could be worse: implementation of some of these policies would still be a step in the right direction. But to be presented with the tantalising prospect of being at the forefront of a gleaming new post-18 education landscape, only for it to be snatched away, would certainly sting.
Stephen Exley is FE editor at Tes