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The UK is paying for its ‘low emphasis’ on skills

With a Brexit-driven workforce crisis looming, further education is finally getting some political attention – after decades of neglect, writes David Walrond

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With a Brexit-driven workforce crisis looming, further education is finally getting some political attention – after decades of neglect, writes David Walrond

The House of Lords Economic Affairs Select Committee has asked a simple but crucial question: “Is the current structure of post-school education and training, and the way it is financed, appropriate for the modern British economy?”

The short answer, in relation to further education, is, of course, “no”. Compelling evidence for this includes the UK’s productivity compared with economic competitors. The committee’s call for evidence explicitly identifies our “lower emphasis on technical and vocational education” as a major contributing factor. The difficulty in understanding the issues, however, is evident in the vagueness and awkwardness of that phrase: “a lower emphasis”. It needs unpicking.

“Lower emphasis” means much lower investment, understanding and esteem. These are all interlinked.

The phrase also begs a critical look at what conversely gets “greater emphasis”, and with what actual socioeconomic benefits for the UK. Unease about this informs the committee’s call for evidence, which notes that “excluding universities, there was a 26 per cent fall in adult skills and education between 2011-12 and 2015-16” and that “almost 60 per cent of recent graduates in the UK are working in non-graduate jobs”.

Countries have a kind of hierarchy of esteem (and spend) in terms of their education and training. The consequences of the UK’s hierarchy of esteem (and its investment choices) is evident in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development’s publication Education at a Glance, which reveals how our low-productivity UK has post-16 vocational programmes with much lower enrolment rates and investment than most OECD countries.

This “lower emphasis” and its damaging socioeconomic consequences will persist because of low and still declining UK investment in our post-16 phase and its vocational offer.

Apprenticeship growth and T levels have significant potential to address some key challenges. They are not the answer to everything claimed for them, but colleges can and will make the major contribution to the success of both pathways – if they are invested in and allowed to. Presently, however, colleges necessarily obsess over survival.

The Association of Colleges identifies the staggering 21 per cent drop in funding per learner at age 16. The apparently commercially astute private sector raises fees by about 20 per cent at the same point.

The average amounts available per student in secondary schools (11-16), 16-19 providers and universities are, respectively, £5,700, £4,500 and £8,500. The Institute For Fiscal Studies confirms that FE “has been the big loser from education spending changes” for a quarter of a century. When education spending was ostensibly “protected” in 2010, protection stopped at age 16. A massive but quite deliberate planned decline in the funding for post-16 education and skills began. It continues still. Its effects are corrosive.

It may be difficult to ever fully substantiate Sir Vince Cable’s claim that, in 2010, some government officials wanted to axe further education colleges to save money, with many civil servants apparently insisting that “nobody will really notice”. However, that general attitude is familiar to many in FE. The fact that a UK government could ever disinvest in further education and skills training is indicative of a clear position. Unfortunately, this position distinguishes the UK from nearly all of its successful economic competitors.

Colleges struggling to survive

For additional evidence of the “lower emphasis”, consider how universities’ apparent financial difficulties and the (rather better-evidenced) budget crises in schools get headlines and usually spark political action.

Colleges, by contrast, have major funding cuts, enter consequent financial crises, shrink and close courses and buildings – but all in ways that barely register in the mainstream of political discourse. We have also just had the cost-led area reviews of education’s most cost-effective sector – one of the explicit aims of which was, remarkably, “fewer colleges”.

Most colleges, even the many managed with great skill financially, have since 2010 been intensely focused on surviving, given the cuts to their income and a lack of capital investment that no other sector could absorb.

There are now signs, perhaps prompted by the more alarming post-Brexit scenarios, of a slight change in political thinking about investing in post-16 education.

Simply stressing how crucially important colleges and their post-16 vocational offer are to our future socioeconomic fortunes – a kind of under-rehearsed, well-intentioned verbal cheerleading for a team that is being pummelled on the pitch – will not work.

Only major changes in how colleges and their crucial work are valued, understood and invested in can deliver a better system which, in the select committee’s words, “meets the needs of enterprise and the economy”.


David Walrond is principal of Truro and Penwith College

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