On 4 June, in this column, I asked: are colleges important to the government or not? I pointed out that Department for Education had no overarching strategy for how it works with colleges nor for post-16 education generally. I wrote this because I believed that a vision and strategy about the role of colleges was long overdue; last week I think my plea was answered when Damian Hinds gave a landmark speech at Battersea Power Station.
In my article, I wrote: “What colleges need is an unambiguous statement of intent from the DfE, that colleges are central to their thinking, that colleges are vital in every community and that investment is on its way to support those policies.” Last week, the secretary of state started the Christmas giving a little early by delivering on the first part of this; but sadly the investment will have to wait, probably until the Spending Review.
It came as a bit of a surprise, to be honest, but a welcome one. I had not really expected much before the Augar panel reports in the new year as part of the post-18 education and funding review.
The Hinds speech, unsurprisingly, set out the next phase of implementing the new T levels and bemoaned the longstanding low levels of productivity in the UK. The genuine surprise came when Damian Hinds said he believed that the skills and productivity challenge was core business for colleges, making a very strong case for the vital role of colleges as part of the national infrastructure and their key role in delivering the government’s industrial strategy.
That’s the start of a great and welcome vision for our education and skills system – and a useful steer to the Augar panel, perhaps?
Even more surprising was the news that DfE proposes to develop a new framework for level 4 and 5 qualifications, which will be called higher technical qualifications, building on T levels. That’s what we proposed in our submissions to the Augar panel, so it’s good that DfE has been taking note, and it gives me some hope for the other proposals we made in our most recent paper.
Two reactions to this speech are worth noting. The first is that we have heard all of this before, so it is not new. The second that this is a land-grab by colleges of university funding. Both in my view are wrong and linked.
At the heart of the Hinds speech was the proposal of a new and better route for "other people’s children", for those who do not "go to university". All well and familiar until you look into the details and remember the context. The details include the new higher technical qualifications as well as the belief that for this to be successful some incentives must be introduced for employers, colleges and students. There was realism as well about the timescale of at least a decade to establish them as a vital and valued part of the education system.
System of education
The context as well is worth considering. This was all introduced amid the review of the whole of post-18 education and funding, launched by the prime minister earlier this year, at Derby College, with a strong speech about wanting a system of education that works for everyone.
We’ve had review before of course, but not of the further education and higher education routes together. The work of Philip Augar and his panel so far has confirmed that they are sticking to the task and not being diverted by the inevitable focus of the media on (so-called) student debt. Long may that last if we are to see any progress on what feels like a review with true potential to develop a tertiary system.
Two issues will help to determine whether progress is made from the review. The first is whether the current PM is around to implement the findings, or whether her successor – from whichever party – will want to pick it up and run with it. There is not much we can do to influence that. The second issue, though, we can work on. It is whether the university sector can desist from seeing this as a frontal attack on their funding in order to work with colleges and the government to help develop a better system of post-18 education and skills that can work for more people.
I hope that can happen, because our country needs a better deal for everyone over 18 as they navigate a changing labour market, face unknowable technological changes and lives that will require many to work for more than 50 years. The education and skills offer we have now is not designed for this, so we need changes that include schools, colleges and universities to adapt, and we need to embrace those changes if we want an inclusive and successful country.
David Hughes is chief executive of the Association of Colleges