Today saw the long-awaited launch of the government-commissioned review of post-18 education and funding, chaired by Philip Augar.
The event took place at the Westminster headquarters of the Policy Exchange thinktank. Dr Augar was joined on stage by prime minister Theresa May, who 472 days ago, first announced the review from Derby College.
The report outlined dozens of recommendations to level the playing field between HE and FE. And, in keeping with the theme, Ms May devoted much of her speech to the importance of further education. In her closing comments, she stressed that “the government will need to take very seriously the report’s proposals to boost further education spending and put right the errors of the past”. However, as she also acknowledged, it will fall to the next prime minister to decide whether to press on with the review’s recommendations.
Here are some of the highlights from her landmark speech.
Breaking down ‘false boundaries’ between FE and HE
“The UK boasts some of the finest universities in the world, universities that we can proud of and that all governments should pledge to support and protect. But in technical education we have fallen behind other leading nations.
“Our further education colleges have the potential to transform lives and grow our economy, but the FE landscape can be confusing to navigate. Too many students, parents and employers see further education as a second-best option. And successive governments have failed to give it the support it needs.
“For nearly 20 years there has been a relentless focus on getting 50 per cent of young people into higher education. Yet most have lost sight of the fact that the original target referred not just to university degrees. It, quite rightly, covered the whole higher education spectrum – including vocational and technical qualifications.
“That is why, in February last year, as you’ve just heard, I set Philip a clear and ambitious challenge. To break down the false boundaries between further and higher education."
‘Reinvigorating FE is vital’
“Decisions about whether and how to implement these recommendations will not fall to me, but to the next government. But regardless of the debate to come, there can be no doubt that this report represents a major landmark. And that the data, analysis and insights it contains will help us to deliver a post-18 education system that truly works for everyone.
“That needs to begin with further education. Our FE and technical colleges are not just places of learning. They are vital engines of both social mobility and of economic prosperity, training the next generation and helping deliver our modern industrial strategy.
“But for too long, further education has been allowed to stagnate, with student numbers falling. With MPs, civil servants and, yes, even journalists overwhelmingly coming from university backgrounds, it’s no surprise that attention has drifted away from other post-18 options.
“I found it rather telling that, despite the wide-ranging remit of the panel, in the year since the review was launched the debate has concentrated almost exclusively on what it will mean for universities. As the panel argues, this focus on academic routes at the expense of all others has left further education overlooked, undervalued and underfunded.
“Routes into and through our colleges are confusing and opaque, with no equivalent of the clear, straightforward and comprehensive Ucas system. And this situation isn’t just bad for students – it’s bad for our economy.
“By failing to equip more of our young people with the technical skills they will need to compete in the jobs of the future, we have hampered our ability to compete on the world stage. Businesses here in the UK regularly tell me that they struggle to find workers with the technical qualifications they need – but that their rivals overseas have no such problems. As the report says, in Germany 20 per cent of the workforce holds a higher technical qualification. Here in the UK, just four per cent of 25-year-olds can say the same.
“Behind that statistic lies an immeasurable number of opportunities missed and potential wasted, both for individuals and employers. So reinvigorating FE is vital if we are to help all our young people develop the skills they need to get on – and if we are to truly make a success of our modern industrial strategy.”
‘Not just about increased funding’
“It’s not enough to simply say that FE and HE should be seen as equals. As the report argues compellingly, to make that happen we will have to invest much more in further education – in the buildings, in the equipment and of course in teachers who are expert in their field.
“And making a success of FE is not just about increased funding – it’s about giving these young people a genuine choice about their education.
“So more also needs to be done to ensure that further and technical options are every bit as attractive a path for students as more academic options – including by reforming the sector so that colleges can thrive. That will mean more specialisation and collaboration – while also continuing to make sure all young people have access to a college in their local area – and reforms to ensure the courses offered by colleges deliver the skills that are needed by local businesses.
“And of course we also need to make sure that only high-quality qualifications are on offer. That FE students are appropriately supported by government. And that the route to further education is as streamlined and clear as possible – just as it is for universities.”