Make no mistake: further education and skills are centre stage in the general election campaign.
Given that Labour and the Liberal Democrats have helped to establish separate commissions on adult education and lifelong learning to develop policy ideas, it was perhaps no surprise that both parties have offered visions involving substantial change to the status quo.
Labour focused on entitlement, with a £2.6 billion package including funding for any adult without an A level or equivalent qualification to attend college and study at level 3, as well as six years of free study at levels 4-6.
Lib Dem manifesto: Skills wallets and funding
Labour manifesto: A National Education Service and adult education
Election 2019: Lib Dems to scrap Sats and league tables
Election 2019: the FE battleground
The Lib Dems, rather, proposed £1 billion in extra funding, including refunding colleges for VAT and creating a post-16 “young people’s premium”. The idea of a £10,000 “skills wallet” for lifelong learning also featured prominently.
The issue on which both parties agree is that the apprenticeship levy needs reform.
The Lib Dems would expand the apprenticeship levy into a wider “skills and training levy” – with 25 per cent of the funds raised going into a “Social Mobility Fund” targeted at areas with the greatest skill needs.
Labour, meanwhile, would "make it easier for employers to spend the levy by allowing it to be used for a wider range of accredited training, in line with guidelines set by the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education and government’s wider priorities for the economy".
Whatever you may think about the specifics of the parties’ policies (not least, how they would be paid for), they have set out visions for the role of FE and adult education and the role they would play through the 2020s.
So what, then, of the Conservatives? Don’t forget, of course, that education secretary Gavin Williamson used the party’s conference to pledge to “super-charge further education over the next decade with an aim to overtake Germany in the opportunities we offer to those studying technical routes by 2029”.
Conservatives 'lack policy details'
That’s fighting talk – especially with an election in prospect. So what bold vision was unveiled in the Conservative manifesto when it (finally) was published on Sunday?
To be frank, it simply wasn’t there.
That’s not to say FE was ignored – far from it. But all the headline announcements were so beige as to be almost meaningless.
We’ve already heard about plans for a £1.8 billion capital programme to pay for badly needed improvement of college estates. Good news. But this is just about bricks and mortar. What about the education that will go on inside these buildings?
A £3 billion “national skills fund”. Great. The party revealed that it would “take the first steps towards a Right to Retrain with £3 billion for a new national skills fund”.
So what is it? Not sure. A future Tory government would “consult widely on the final design of the fund to ensure that the money is invested wisely and delivers the best possible outcomes for individuals and businesses”.
OK. But what about this “Right to Retrain”? Sounds like a substantial, long-term vision, yes?
'A vague ambition isn’t a policy'
“It is our ultimate ambition to empower millions of people in the future with the skills to achieve their potential, keep pace with technological change and embrace lifelong learning.” Brilliant. But how? Having a vague ambition isn’t a policy.
This was a theme that recurred through a manifesto that seems to have no ambition beyond ducking punches. What about the much-maligned apprenticeship levy? Will the Conservatives follow the other parties (and the wishes of the CBI) and broaden it so funding can be used for other forms of training? And how would they ration levy funds to avoid the projected £1 billion overspend?
They will “look at how we can improve the working of the apprenticeship levy”. Great. Clear as mud.
And what about the biggest existential decision the government faces about the role of education in society? Will it follow through on the recommendations of the Augar Review, and fundamentally rebalance FE and HE to create a holistic, coordinated and properly funded system of post-16 education?
“The Augar Review [of post-18 education] made thoughtful recommendations on tuition fee levels, the balance of funding between universities, further education and apprenticeships and adult learning, and we will consider them carefully.”
The Conservatives’ 2017 manifesto and campaign was widely criticised for being excessively cautious and lacking in ambition; more of an exercise in not making any mistakes than painting a compelling vision of the future.
As far as FE policy goes, it’s hard not to conclude that the 2019 version offers more of the same.
Stephen Exley is FE Editor at Tes