Business secretary Vince Cable has launched a consultation on the challenges that will face adult further education over the next ten years.
The consultation, which runs until June, introduces the idea of a so-called ‘dual mandate’ for adult FE – to provide both vocational education for the workplace and second chances for those who have not succeeded in the school system.
Mr Cable said the main focus of the document was how to strengthen higher level vocational education, an area in which England has a “historic weakness” and still “lags behind” other countries.
Although he said the government was working to reverse the issues – citing the development of national colleges and higher level apprenticeships as examples of such work – he added that more needed to be done.
“Sustained action by government, businesses, and educational institutions will be necessary if we are to succeed,” he said.
The 90-page consultation document also looks at the implications for providers, particularly FE colleges, who are already facing an 11 per cent cut in adult skills funding in the next academic year, or 24 per cent excluding apprenticeships.
The business secretary warned that the government has forecast two trends that will continue over the rest of this decade and beyond.
“First, reductions in public funds for skills are unlikely to be reversed, and resource allocation will increasingly be contestable,” he said. “Secondly, effective delivery will increasingly require greater specialisation.”
David Hughes, chief executive of the National Institute for Adult Continuing Education (Niace), said the sector lacked a “unifying vision” for learning, skills and employment and welcomed Mr Cable’s contribution to the debate.
“The consultation covers a lot of ground and includes explicit analysis of the challenges we face which support our view that we are facing a skills crisis,” he said.
“The crisis is a combination of the need to support better skills achievement whilst state funding has plummeted. I also welcome some of the thinking and ideas for change, because it is clear that a lot has to change to ensure we have a strong economic recovery.”
Niace wants an independent commission to be set up in the first 100 days of the next government to help establish a new vision for skills.
Lynne Sedgmore, executive director of the 157 Group of colleges, said the document sets out a “visionary” set of challenges for the future of FE and acknowledges the important work FE colleges already do.
“We have understood for some time that the future landscape of the sector will be different and, in many ways, it is good that this document now sets out the central issues that need to be considered,” she said.
“We agree that the focus of the future must be on partnership and relationship-building and that the increased engagement of employers in the system is vital to ensuring the future success of our job market.”
Martin Doel, chief executive of the Association of Colleges, said that while Mr Cable was right to highlight the ‘dual mandate’ of adult FE, it was important to remember the other significant role colleges played in preparing 16 to 18-year-olds for the move between school, university and work.
“The questions in this paper also provide a useful checklist of the issues the next government needs to tackle but they cannot be separated from funding,” he said.
“That’s why we want a once in a generation review of education funding to ensure it’s being allocated fairly. In addition, government should invest in order to allow colleges to restructure, consolidate and to develop new business models in the next few years."
Adult skills budget cut by 11 per cent – February 2015
FE loans had 'devastating impact' on learner numbers, figures show – November 2014
Urgent action needed to stop 'collapse' in adult learning, warns Niace – October 2014