'Opportunities come at a cost in FE, too'

16th March 2018 at 00:00
The further education sector is suffering a funding squeeze but we should not lose sight of the aim of creating a system that works for all learners

In my two years of studying economics at university, only one concept stuck. Much of what was discussed in those lecturers went over my head. My most lasting memory from that time is the beautiful sea view from the tutorial room.

But the idea of an “opportunity cost” – the cost of doing something and therefore inevitably not doing something else – is the one thing I not only remember, but also use frequently in all sorts of life situations. In FE – and in education more generally – we don’t spend enough time thinking about what the alternative would look like. In other words, what other way is there, and what is the cost of it?

Growing apprenticeship opportunities – great. But at what point is quality likely to come at the expense of quality? Increasing lecturer salaries? Count me in. But how will that be funded when college budgets are finite? You get the picture.

A system for both young and old

And while I think that this is a useful way of thinking, and that we should do so more often at a time of “austerity” and “reform”, it also applies more specifically to some of the key themes in FE. I was, for example, reminded of the same concept when considering Peter Lauener’s optimism about the future of the UK’s skills system. Young people, he believes, now have much better opportunities available to them than they did at the start of his career.

What is the alternative? To him, it is the past he has seen, where much larger proportions of young people who left school ended up without a route in front of them. And maybe that is the way we should look at it.

That doesn’t mean losing sight of the aim: creating a system that works for all learners, young and old – and that offers vocational routes as successful as those academic ones we keep citing. But it might make sense, with an FE sector struggling for funding, to every once in a while remind ourselves that for every learner, the alternative to taking up an apprenticeship or a place at college is, well, to not do that.


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