Government policy leaves funding in confusion
It does seem that there was ambiguity in these contracts. The Learning and Skills Council, presumably on behalf of the Government, says contractors should have known the income they would receive. However, the fact that those staying the course and completing their qualifications rose from 32 per cent to 39 per cent means that training organisations will be paid less per student as a result of the increased success of students and organisations.
Surely there is something odd in success bringing with it a reduced level of funding per student. Yet, it resembles the recent idea that over-recruitment to university courses would be penalised just as would under-recruitment. So being penalised for success - in terms of recruitment or retention - is not an entirely new phenomenon. However, at least universities knew the deal before attempting to recruit students. The complex funding arrangements through the Learning and Skills Council is partly responsible for the lack of clarity over who pays what for training.
If the story seems odd so far, it gets murkier. The document "Skills for Productivity", produced jointly by the Department for Education and Skills and the Department for Trade and Industry, states the intention of working with employers to make improvements. One way of securing this is through the 250,000 young people completing apprenticeships: "We want many more successfully completing apprenticeships, which will remain their main work-based route to gain employment skills and enable them to progress onto higher education should they choose to do so".
Clearly skills are desirable and the idea that apprenticeship should be regarded as a route that extends through to university is welcome.
However, if the Government wants more students completing apprenticeships, recent indications suggest it is disinclined to pay for such expansion. At the very least, for the Government's commitment to maintain credibility, the nature of contracts needs to change as soon as practicable. The confusion over paying for success in apprenticeships, though, is small beer in comparison to the lack of certainty within Skills for Productivity as a whole.
First, publicly funded training in skills is to meet the needs of employers. A central steer is of limited help and will not satisfy all employers. Such satisfaction can only be achieved through direct association between individual employers and FE colleges or similar training providers.
Second, "most employers are investing heavily in skills". Obviously, employers do invest in some workers, usually those regarded as central to the conduct of business and who have already received higher amounts of education. Such employees are still likely to be younger white males - preferably heterosexual and without disability. If employers were so interested in investing more broadly in skills, it would be reasonable to expect more employer funded training at levels 2 and 3.
Third, if employers were sufficiently immersed in training it is questionable whether the Government would, as Skills for Productivity states, be "making a commitment to deliver publicly funded skills training".
It would, perhaps, be too cynical to suggest that employers are mainly interested in such training because it is free to them. However, it would be good to see more commitment from employers or even the Government to level 3 qualifications, as this level allows individuals to make a more significant contribution and increase their earnings potential.
Fourth, and most fundamentally, the whole argument of Skills for Productivity is dramatically flawed. The document opens with the following statement: "People with the right skills are crucial to the success and competitiveness of any business and of Britain's economy. So employers need to be in the driving seat when it comes to designing and delivering training".
This is surely wrong-headed. If employers are to be this involved in training, they will probably be little involved in the production of goods and services. As a corollary, are we to expect teachers to run businesses, perhaps employing students and pupils! Either would be a ridiculous approach to increasing national competitiveness. And this from a government that repeatedly espouses the value of increasing economic performance.
Overall, there are misunderstandings with regard to education and skills at post-compulsory level. Unfortunately, whether in terms of basic funding of courses or more advanced policy planning, the contribution of the Government appears to add additional layers of confusion.
Graham Fowler is an FE researcher, writer and consultant