Reducing the number of university students and increasing the ranks of those enrolled on further education programmes would save money and help to boost essential skills, according to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.
A new report published today argues that the social returns to those with low basic skills from shorter professional programmes “are almost certainly at least as good as those from university programmes”. With the costs to society being much lower, it states that “reducing student numbers in university programmes in favour of more suitable programmes, particularly in the [FE] sector, is therefore desirable”.
The savings this move would generate could then be redeployed to improve basic skills both in school and 16-19 education, says the report, which highlights that England has three times more low-skilled people among those aged 16-19 than the best-performing countries like Finland, Japan, Korea and the Netherlands. “Much of this arises from weak numeracy (and to a lesser extent literacy) performance on average," it adds.
With regard to skills, adults approaching retirement age, on the other hand, compare “reasonably well with their counterparts in other countries”. The report states that the weak basic skills of young adults in England, compared with other countries, can be traced back to “a lower standard of performance at the end of initial education... The priority of priorities is therefore to improve the standard of basic schooling in England, improving both average and minimum standards (which are especially weak in England).”
Martin Doel, chief executive of the Association of Colleges, said a university education was not the only option and policymakers needed to recognise that a technical and professional education was just as valuable.
“It is important that students are made aware of, and encouraged to look into, all of the options open to them," he said. "To make informed choices for the future, young people need high-quality, impartial careers information about all post-16 education and training options, including apprenticeships and technical and professional education. That’s why the government’s recent announcement [on career guidance] is so important.
“All 18-year-olds, whether going to college, university or a job, should have maths and English skills up to level 2. It is appropriate, therefore, that universities should only accept students with these qualifications.”
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