Philip Augar’s report on post-18 education represents a landmark in the relationship between FE and universities in England. For the first time in a generation, there is recognition that the investment and attention higher education has received is way out of kilter with what, as a nation, we should be ploughing into our further education colleges. In policy terms, the ghost of Tony Blair – and his fixation on the goal of 50 per cent of young people going to university – has completely come back to haunt us.
The statistics are damning. Adult skills budgets have been cut by 45 per cent since 2010. It has led to the collapse in learner participation, particularly for qualifications below level 3. The number of qualification achievements at level 2 has declined from 550,000 in 2011-12 to just 160,000 in 2017-18. Augar pulls no punches, saying: “[This] cannot be justified in terms of either economics or social equity”. Meanwhile, public spending in 2017-18 on universities (£8 billion per annum) was over three times the amount spent on FE (£2.3 billion). Colleges taught more than 2 million adult learners over the same period compared with 1.2 million undergraduates. The disparity in volumes and resources per capita is clearly there for all to see.
Augar: Plenty of ammunition
Of course, the focus by the sector will be to continue to make the case for more funds for FE as part of the Spending Review. Augar has provided plenty of ammunition. But written in the subtext of this former banker’s 200-page report is something that may turn out to be far more significant in the longer term – because rationalisation of courses and nationalisation of FE colleges is being placed firmly on the agenda of a new Conservative prime minister or a future Labour government.
It starts with the products that FE colleges will be taxpayer-funded to deliver to students. Augar supports the government’s qualification reviews, which will potentially see only A levels and T levels pushed as the mainstay of 16-19 provision in future. Development of a “transition offer” is about to get under way, with the aim of channelling school leavers who have not achieved sufficiently at level 2 to progress directly on to T levels.
For older learners and those retraining, Augar envisages the use of lifetime learning loans as a means of helping individuals acquire higher technical skills at levels 4 and 5. A key part of his vision is pulling together FE colleges into a more rationalised “national network,” with the FE college brand legally protected (as the title of a university is now).
All that glitters…
On the face of it, this all sounds like great news for FE. But a more critical reading of the report, in terms of the possible direction of travel, is more concerning. Firstly, it is clear that the English state wants to be far more prescriptive in the general academic and technical education sphere than it has been previously. Augar calls for the market-based approach, which has characterised 30 years of skills policy, to be coordinated by a “central mechanism”.
He appears to question the role of independent training providers (ITPs), describing them as an almost uniquely English phenomenon. The proposed cull of post-16 qualifications below level 3 might mean colleges being far more restricted in terms of their local curriculum offer in future. Colleges may have to decide whether they want to be study-based 16-19 institutions delivering GCSE resits, A levels and T levels (including the transition offer), or higher technical institutions delivering flexible, occupational competency-based standards at level 4, 5 and 6, in partnership with and exclusively awarded by universities.
While universities may appear to have had their wings clipped somewhat in terms of the proposed reduction in full-time tuition fees, Augar has made sure they will still be playing the leading role in delivery of an expected boom in more modular, part-time, credit-based courses, to be offered alongside traditional bachelor degrees.
'Local delivery arms of the state'
In other words, one very stark interpretation of Augar is that within 10 years, FE colleges may simply become the local delivery arms of the state (national or devolved regional governments). The evidence for this is in the report: those who control the purse strings and what qualifications students can buy, ultimately control the system itself.
Meanwhile, more autonomous higher education institutions will jump on the new funding streams proposed being made available via lifelong learning loans. As with the experience of foundation degrees, universities could simply end up cashing in on any new loans scheme without actually helping to improve Britain’s underlying productivity and skills challenges. Policymakers only have to look at how successful higher education has been at tapping into the apprenticeship levy budget to see that universities have become very adept at reengineering their finances to pursue additional taxpayer support when required. And the debate rages on about whether some degree apprenticeships really represent what taxpayers expected to see funded from the levy.
For FE, the final outcome of the post-18 review could end up feeling more like snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. More public money, certainly. But far less local autonomy and flexibility to innovate than, arguably, colleges have enjoyed since incorporation. Moreover, a future Corbyn-led government could use Augar as a pretext for abolishing taxpayer funds for private training companies altogether.
It’s why my advice to college principals and owners of independent training providers is simply this: be careful what you wish for.
Tom Bewick is the chief executive of the Federation of Awarding Bodies