Take care when putting a price on FE

1st January 2010 at 00:00
Comment: Alan Thomson

Over a decade ago, when the Government was trying to sell higher education tuition fees to the public and members of its own party, someone came up with the wheeze of putting a figure on the extra amount that a graduate would earn over and above someone with A-levels.

It was calculated that a degree was worth a further pound;400,000 over the course of one's career. This worked out at pound;10,000 a year more than someone with A-levels, which made the pound;1,000-a-year tuition fee - as it was then - sound like a bargain.

Except, of course, the pound;400,000 figure was less reliable than a British train in the snow. The response of teachers and countless other graduates working in modestly remunerated public sector jobs was best summed up as "You're having a laugh, aren't you?" The pound;400,000 lifetime earnings premium was quietly dropped by ministers.

There should, therefore, be some concern at the attempt by the UK Commission for Employment and Skills (UKCES) to price vocational qualifications in terms of how much they will boost earnings.

It is right to try to provide this information. The recent skills white paper called for the publication of a host of metrics to help people choose the most suitable course for them and the best learning provider to deliver it.

It is crucial that such market information is robust and transparent. Misleading information could be damaging to providers and learners alike. It is reassuring therefore that UKCES has called for more targeted research on wages and qualifications.

But even if the information is robust, are there not still risks? What if, according to the research, those in admin jobs or working in transport get little or no earnings benefit from taking a level 2 NVQ? Should they forget study? Should learning providers drop these qualifications and offer more places on courses that will boost salaries? These ought to be more popular, after all.

Presumably, most would say "of course not". But the market is a powerful master and if, as surely they must, metrics serve to sift qualifications and providers, then there will be consequences.

At the start of a new year, FE finds itself on the brink of fundamental change that promises to alter the relationship between learners and providers where the former get lots of consumer information and the latter gain the freedom to run their own business.

FE will embrace this emerging market while - hopefully - remembering the service it provides.

Alan Thomson, Editor, FE Focus, alan.thomson@tsleducation.com.

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