“The future is further education” may have been the headline-grabbing phrase from Gavin Williamson, the education secretary, at the AoC annual conference last week. Just as importantly, though, he also pledged to “continue our great rebalancing between higher and further education” in a speech that confirmed his strong personal commitment to colleges and to skills.
Some may dismiss this as the easy rhetoric of a conference speech, designed simply to please the audience or by a politician intent on securing a legacy from his challenging time as education secretary. They may, of course, be right to, but I think it would be a mistake, because there are big questions being asked at the heart of government about investment in colleges, universities, degrees, higher technical skills and apprenticeships at the moment and a long-term settlement might be agreed this year.
There’s no doubt that the government wants colleges to do more for employers and to lead on levelling up, however that ambition might materialise. At the same time, it’s clear that the longstanding high regard for everything HE is over and universities are not as universally loved as they once were. There is also no doubt that after a decade of declining investment for colleges, the tide has turned with some modest new revenue and capital funding starting to address that decline.
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What is still to play for, though, is the great rebalancing between HE and FE (or probably more accurately between universities and colleges). What does it mean? How will it happen? Why is it needed? In his foreword to the review of post-18 education and funding, Philip Augar set out the imbalance very clearly, showing that, in 2017-18, more than £8 billion supported 1.2 million undergraduates in HE whereas £2.3 billion supported 2.2 million students in FE. An imbalance of more than 6 times per student.
Addressing that imbalance could see a great levelling up of college funding, or it could see the robbing of Peter to pay Paul. In other words, in a zero-sum game, it could see universities suffer the sort of funding cuts colleges did in order for colleges to get more. I really would not want to see that. Colleges need fairer funding than they have now, but university funding needs to be right too. It should not be a fight; world-class colleges and universities should be the goal, both funded properly.
So, what are the prospects of the Spending Review later this year resulting in fair funding for both colleges and universities? It’s a good question and one I expect to be talking about all year until we actually find out at the Spending Review statement, whenever that may be. I don’t think we know enough about the driving force behind the rebalancing to answer it and there are also a few variables to take into account, including the state of the economy, the competing demands for funding across government and what strategy the chancellor takes on public spending, taxation and economic stimulus.
Just as important as those variables, is how colleges and universities act over the coming months. Will we see a united front, calling for a new tertiary vision and the funding to back it up? Or will there be a more tribal response, with different university factions lobbying for their interests potentially against others and against colleges? I’d love to see the former, but I fear the latter.
Finally, of course, it is always important to understand what the government is trying to achieve, and often it is not clear cut. The cynics will view the rebalancing as a way of limiting the numbers of young people benefiting from three- or four-year residential bachelor’s degrees in order to limit the growth we have seen over the past 20 years and stem the loan book liabilities. I don’t think it is as simple as that, although I am sure money is playing a part as the loan book grows.
Another par,t surely, is the quest to please traditional and new Tory voters who don’t now view university degrees as for them or their children and grandchildren and who want something more local and attainable, more job-focused and realistic. This fits with the view that this is a worthy attempt to offer more choices for young people and for adults as true alternatives to the residential bachelor’s degrees.
The rebalancing could be the backbone of a grand widening participation plan to increase adult participation at levels 3, 4 and 5 and to prioritise progression in adult education for everyone. The Skills for Jobs White Paper offers a tantalising glimpse of this that I am keen to develop further. In this narrative, the needs of the economy for productivity growth, development of green skills and meeting recruitment needs in key sectors like health, construction and digital all feature highly.
This year really could be a turning point for post-18 education and training. The Skills for Jobs White Paper is a great platform for colleges to work from, and for government to invest money and better policy. Will universities join that change positively, or resist and fight against it? I know what I would rather see, so the invitation is there for working more closely together to build our vision of a more joined-up, truly tertiary system with thriving colleges and universities.
David Hughes is chief executive of the Association of Colleges