This week, the Skills and Post-16 Education Bill has its second reading in the House of Lords. It’s an exciting time for those of us in the further education sector, who rarely get so much time in the spotlight, and we’ve been speaking with plenty of peers who are keen to use the bill to make progress in lifelong learning.
The bill has three major themes: developing a new lifelong learning system, engaging more employers and ensuring their needs are being met, and resetting the relationship the government has with colleges and providers. Those themes have to be viewed in the context of the parallel ongoing work and forthcoming consultations that are emerging from the Skills for Jobs White Paper, published in January of this year, and the spending review later this year, which the government promises will include a full response to the Post-18 Review (aka the Augar Review). We are expecting consultations on the new lifelong loan entitlement and on funding and accountability.
Those three themes are good ones to be discussing but after a decade of neglect and painful funding cuts, the promise from the education secretary that he is serious about rebalancing the funding between higher and further education is an enticing one. "Just give us more money and let us get on with meeting the needs of more learners and employers" is probably what most college leaders would say. And quickly. Sadly, but unsurprisingly, it doesn’t really work like that.
The government commitment, though, is not far off, with the promise of more autonomy to meet local and national needs alongside the tantalising promise of "rebalancing" that featured so strongly in the Augar Review. Delivering on both is easier said than done, but if it is ever to happen, it will be this year. It will require bold, clear and decisive action from the education secretary and the very best negotiation with the chancellor to get the investment that is sorely needed. And we have to hope that it will not damage universities in the process.
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Here are my headline thoughts on how to deliver those three major themes:
- Lifelong learning needs a guarantee of funding for all levels of learning, not just higher levels.
- Giving employers "what they want" needs balancing with what people and communities need and want.
- And giving more autonomy to colleges will require a much more grown-up and trusting approach than Whitehall usually manages.
Central to the skills bill is the introduction of the new lifetime loan entitlement, in which adults will be eligible for four years' tuition funding through opening up the higher education loans to modular courses. The aim is to support more people to learn standalone level 4 and level 5 courses, diverting some young people who might have gone for a three-year degree programme and encouraging adults already in the workforce back into learning. It’s a good plan, but it needs filling out a bit.
On the plus side, offering funding to pay for more modular, locally delivered qualifications that help people to get good jobs and promotions has to be welcomed. Loans, rather than grants, might be an issue for many, limiting take-up, but the biggest barrier is probably that there are not enough people already in the workforce with level 3 qualifications ready, confident and wanting to study at higher levels. So the entitlement needs the new Lifetime Skills Guarantee for funding at level 3 to truly be a guarantee.
Currently, it is limited to some specified qualifications, to only the first level 3 and by funding caps. The result will be that it doesn’t support retraining for people who find themselves with skills and qualifications that are out of date, for jobs that don’t exist any more. Neither does it ensure that adults with lower-level qualifications can find the education and training they need to get ready to study at level 3. Both of those need to change.
Adult education: A funding guarantee
The lack of a guarantee of funding for adults to find the learning they want and need at all levels up to and including level 3 is a major hurdle. The 50 per cent cut in adult funding over the past decade means that colleges simply cannot offer sufficient learning opportunities in numeracy, literacy, ESOL, digital skills and at entry, level 1 and level 2, which are all needed for a true guarantee to work. It’s no guarantee if you cannot find a course and lots of people will need that lower-level learning before they get anywhere near a level 4 or 5 qualification. Ironically, of course, recruitment on to level 6 (degree) courses has no cap, but at level 3 and below the cap is very tight, limiting the capacity of colleges to reach out to adults who really could benefit from learning at any level.
So, there is some work to do on the lifelong learning parts of the bill, and that’s before we start to unpack the risk of the second theme; putting employers into the driving seat on skills. It’s right and proper to engage more employers in education and skills. The average college has around 1,000 employer relationships, but the average employer doesn’t invest enough in their workforce skills, so the majority never engage. Overall, employers in England invest far less than their counterparts in other Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development countries. Giving them more say and more engagement with colleges might help, but the experience of the apprenticeship levy shows that the likely outcome is that they will focus very much on higher-level skills of people already in the workforce. Many will also focus on the immediate skills needs at the expense of the longer term. Green skills, for instance, might not be high on the agenda for many employers, but we need them to be part of the mix.
It is dangerous to put the whole post-16 skills and education system "in their hands". Colleges already plan their learning offer to meet the subtle mix of labour market intelligence, what their employer partners say they want and what learners are demanding. Subtle, because people need help to decide what to study, and influencing those decisions is critical. Better advice and guidance, clearer signals from employers, stronger partnerships between colleges and employers will all help, but in the end the college has to put on courses that people will enrol on.
Then there is the new relationship, with stronger powers of intervention for the education secretary, hopefully balanced with more autonomy and clearer accountability for colleges. The bill says little about the autonomy side of the equation but is clear on the powers. That’s understandable but we all wait with bated breath to see how the consultation on funding and accountability delivers on the commitment to more autonomy, a simpler system and the more nurturing relationship that Dame Mary Ney recommended in her review last year.
As the bill is debated in the Lords, I’m hoping that peers use the opportunity to underpin the commitment to lifelong learning with a guarantee of funding for all levels, not just higher; balance the employer voice with what people and communities need and want; and, deliver the autonomy and trust to colleges that will unleash their true potential. That all of this is possible truly is exciting.
David Hughes is chief executive of the Association of Colleges