Skills White Paper a missed opportunity, says IFS

While real reform of the adult education and skills sector is needed, the White Paper, published earlier this year, falls short in a number of areas, says the IFS.

Julia Belgutay

The government has missed the mark with its Skills for Jobs White Paper, the IFS has said

The government’s Skills for Jobs White Paper is a missed opportunity and lacks detail and tangible commitment, the Institute for Fiscal Studies has said.

In a briefing note, entitled Big changes to adult education funding? Definitely maybe and published today with funding from the Nuffield Foundation, the IFS points out that while real reform of the adult education and skills sector is needed, the White Paper, published earlier this year, falls short in a number of areas.

According to the IFS, spending and learner numbers have fallen substantially, with total public spending on adult education and apprenticeships falling by one third over the last decade and spending on traditional adult education falling by 50 per cent in real-terms. Learner numbers have fallen by more than one third since 2010.

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The IFS researchers add there is a distinct lack of detail about what the key spending commitment – the government’s National Skills Fund, will mean in practice. “This seems to equate to a commitment to spend an extra £2.5 billion on adult skills over the parliament, or about £625 million extra per year for four years (although it is difficult to be certain due to a distinct lack of detail). This spending commitment will only reverse about one-third of the cuts to adult education spending over the 2010s.”

The briefing note highlights that while the government has restored the entitlement to free A-level equivalent or level 3 courses for adults without qualifications at this level, this is restricted to courses in “high priority” areas, excluding many areas such as hospitality, tourism, and media.

The adult education funding system is overly complex, too focussed on the short term and provides “perverse incentives” to increase numbers, says the IFS, and while the White Paper suggests changing the adult education funding system and proposes a lifelong loan entitlement giving everyone access to funding for the equivalent of four years of post-18 education and remove arbitrary distinctions between further education and higher education courses, there are important details left to be worked out.

Courses classed as ‘approved higher technical qualifications’ will be eligible for extra funding, but it is not clear how this will be determined and what will happen to other courses. This will have a substantial bearing on the effects and cost.”

“Despite extensive consultation as part of the Augar Review, the government has only committed to consult further on whether to relax equivalent or lower qualification (ELQ) funding rules. Relaxing such rules would enable more adults to retrain at qualification levels they have already attained.”

“Relaxing the ELQ rules would be a crucial step towards enabling lifelong learning and retraining, to which the government is ostensibly committed. This point was emphasised in the Augar Review, which recommended scrapping ELQ rules entirely. As things stand, the funding system makes it nearly impossible for people to diverge from the path on which they made their first steps with their Level 3 choices at age 16, when in many cases it might be much better for people to turn around and take a different path that better suited their skills and preferences. It is difficult to see how the government can convincingly claim to offer a ‘Lifetime Skills Guarantee’ or a ‘Lifelong Loan Entitlement’ if in practice those who have completed any higher education course – some of which may turn out to be of lower value in the labour market – will effectively be barred from taking another

higher education qualification at the same or a lower level,” says the briefing note.

Increasing demand for retraining

Imran Tahir, research economist at the IFS and co-author, said: “There is a strong case for reforming further and adult education funding. Spending and learner numbers have fallen substantially over the last decade. Economic and technological changes are likely to increase demand for new skills and retraining. Yet, the present system of support is horrendously complicated, creates arbitrary distinctions between further and higher education courses, and actually discourages flexibility and retraining."

IFS senior research economist and co-author Ben Waltmann said: “The recent White Paper contains many good ideas — mostly taken from the Augar Review — but is short on specifics and actual commitments. The government should have set out a clear sense of direction, but instead has kicked the can down the road, with most substantive decisions delayed awaiting further consultations.”

Josh Hillman, director of education at the Nuffield Foundation said: "The economic downturn following the Covid-19 pandemic is likely to increase demand for post-18 education and training, and to put a premium on the qualifications that can be acquired. This is likely to highlight flaws in the existing system. For adults from a wide range of backgrounds to be able to gain the skills required by potential employers, it is more important than ever that the government ensures that the further education system is adequately funded and fit for purpose."

'Adult education is still suffering'

David Hughes, chief executive of the Association of Colleges, said: “Today’s report from IFS shows adult education is still suffering after a decade of neglect and funding cuts. The consequence is far fewer adult learners and big skills gaps. IFS rightly points out that it will take long term increases in investment for the rest of the decade. The ambitions in the White Paper will need to be a priority in the spending review otherwise adults will continue to miss out and employers will struggle to find the skilled people they need. 

There is a great opportunity to provide a solid foundation, towards a stronger, more coherent technical education system that generates a culture of lifelong learning. This needs to be at the core of government’s agenda to allow colleges to support people into work, adapt to a changing labour market and re-skill.”


A DfE spokesperson said: "Making sure people can gain the skills they need to get good jobs is at the heart of our ambitious programme of further and technical education reforms, as we work with employers to fill skills gaps and build back better from the pandemic.

“Our Free Courses for Jobs offer adults the opportunity to learn and develop the skills they need at any age. In addition, Skills Bootcamps, free flexible courses lasting up to 16 weeks in areas such as construction and digital, and our online Skills Toolkit, are supporting people to gain new skills or retrain. We are also continuing to invest £1.34 billion in education and skills training for adults through the adult education budget."

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Julia Belgutay

Julia Belgutay

Julia Belgutay is head of FE at Tes

Find me on Twitter @JBelgutay

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