Today’s Institute of Fiscal Studies report on education spending lays bare the inadequate investment we are now making in the education and training of young people as they reach working age and adults throughout their working lives and beyond.
To be balanced, I’ve tried hard to find some good news in the report and I’ve managed to find two positives. The first is that the number of 16- to 18-year-olds in full-time education has more than doubled since the 1980s and now stands at 82 per cent. The second is that funding per university student is 60 per cent higher in real-time terms now than it was 20 years ago. So good news for young people who have achieved well in school and go on to enjoy the benefits of that increased investment at university.
The report, though, has plenty of data and analysis which paints a very worrying picture indeed about the lack of investment in post-16 education outside of universities. It’s almost impossible to know where to start and which figures are more alarming.
Further education spending
The increase in participation of 16- to 18-year-olds in full-time education has, sadly, not been matched by funding. In 1990–91, spending per student in further education was 50 per cent higher than spending per student in secondary schools, but it is now about 8 per cent lower. It makes sense that spending per student should go up for the 16-18 phase of education – class sizes need to be smaller and technical subjects need more space, specialist equipment and costly consumables. That’s why our competitor nations increase the investment at this stage, as do private schools.
With almost 50 per cent of 18- to 30-year-olds now participating in higher education, the 60 per cent increase in spend per student in universities is an enormous cost to the country. And it appears to have come at the cost of other investment in adults. The number of adult learners almost halved between 2004 (4 million) and 2016 (2.2 million).
The 45 per cent drop in spending on adult learning means that apprenticeships now account for over a third of total adult education funding, as opposed to 13 per cent in 2010. So there’s some limited good news here if you are fortunate enough to work for an employer who is part of the apprenticeship programme. You’d be in the minority of course, and there are millions more people who will never get the chance to undertake an apprentice – those working part-time, in the gig economy, for a micro-business, self-employed and on zero hours contracts for instance.
A bleak picture
For the majority of adults, then, the report paints a bleak picture. The numbers show that there are fewer evening classes and opportunities for people to learn, whether it be for better literacy and numeracy, technical skills which might help get a job or a promotion, or GCSEs and A levels to help access higher education. Every year we now have 1.8 million fewer adults able to improve their life chances through education.
The social impact of this is impossible to calculate. We know that that participating in learning has many benefits - better health, mental wellbeing, tolerance, self-esteem, personal confidence, community cohesion, volunteering. Everyone benefits from these, not just the learners themselves, so we should be worried that our society is suffering from funding cuts to adult education. People coming together to learn is often the only time and place they meet people from other walks of life, breaking down the barriers between people. It helps make people feel part of the community, introduces them to new friends and gives them support. All of those are lost when fewer opportunities are offered.
The cuts should also worry those more concerned about economic issues. One of the obvious benefits of adult education is helping people attain the skills that employers need. This is more important now that fewer EU nationals are moving over to work here. Brexit will make it worse still. So opportunities to train and gain new skills should be going up, not down. Our figures on enrolments in key areas of the labour market are startling. Enrolments in health and social care courses dropped by from 692,000 in 2006 to 219,000 in 2016. For construction, the fall was from 98,000 to 62,000 and for engineering from 145,000 to 46,000.
If the prime minister wants this to be a country which works for everyone, then these figures should be of major concern because millions of adults have lost opportunities to improve their work prospects. The chancellor wants and needs to improve productivity and recognises the risks to millions of jobs from new technologies. His National Retraining Scheme is being designed to address both, and will need major investment to fill the gaps from the 45 per cent drop in adult learning.
Spending on education and adult learning need to be seen as an investment – the returns are multi-faceted and long-term. The benefits accrue to the learners, their families, the communities they live in and to employers and the economy. Next year’s spending review will be an opportunity to show that post-Brexit, the government has recognised that.
David Hughes is chief executive of the Association of Colleges