Universities and colleges have had very different experiences of austerity, so it’s no surprise that universities are fearful of the Post-18 Review and keep reacting so strongly to leaks. They have a lot to lose, given the advantageous funding they have received over the past decade. Colleges, on the other hand, are mildly hopeful that finally their vital role will be both recognised and valued.
The speech by Damian Hinds, the education secretary, before Christmas felt like a big step forward for colleges. Not only were colleges described as “…our key national infrastructure for technical education” but there was acknowledgement that “…further education has been something of a neglected sector, playing second fiddle to higher education”.
In promising new “…. clear, high-quality technical paths to skilled jobs… Paths that are as respected and as easy to understand as the A-level-to-degree route”, Hinds seems to have waved a red flag to a fuming and worried bull. Universities have seen this as a threat, colleges have seen it as an opportunity.
The common university response goes a bit like this: young people from disadvantaged backgrounds gain enormously from attaining a university degree, so we need simply to grow the number of people participating in university education to achieve better social mobility, rather than change the system. The problem is that it is half right – we must enable more young people from disadvantaged backgrounds to "go to university" and in so doing we will help them get on in life and in work.
It is half wrong, though, because it ignores many vital and basic truths. Not everyone will ever be able to "go to university", so we need other routes and opportunities. Investing in other routes does not necessarily mean investing less in universities. It is a choice. Many colleges deliver high-quality degrees, often part-time, and to people who cannot access university education. These degrees are equally successful in supporting people to get on in life. Other routes, including Level 4 and 5 courses, also provide great opportunities.
Widening participation in traditional bachelor degrees has focused mainly on young people at the expense of others, and the gap between the more and less advantaged has not narrowed, despite higher participation of both groups. Individuals and society gain enormously from education at all levels – from basic skills all the way through to degrees, so we need a balance of investment for all adults to have a fair and inclusive society.
Return on investment
The investment issue is an important one. There is a lot of evidence about the return on investment of education at all levels, and yet there is a fundamental imbalance in who and what we invest in. It looks likely, according to the Office for Budget Responsibility, that student loans will require an £8 million to £10 billion "cost" to the Department for Education annually. That cost supports around half of the population to achieve higher education qualifications by age 30. For the other half, the adult education budget is £1.5 billion and the whole apprenticeship budget less than £2 billion.
All of this will have been debated and considered by the Augar committee, as part of the Post-18 Review of Education and Funding, over the past year, and we eagerly await its report next month. It remains to be seen whether the review will be implemented in full or even at all, given the uncertainty in politics generally and the speculation about the future of the current prime minister, who is a champion of the review.
Whatever the future of the government and the PM, what is clear is that the public’s longstanding love affair with universities has ended, or at least wobbled. After years of universities being viewed as simply "good", there are now deep concerns about the value for money of a degree and the costs of a three- or four-year residential route to achieving it. There are also questions about whether all degrees are worth the investment.
Within government, the focus has shifted to the range of courses and opportunities needed to educate all of our population and if that was not enough, the ONS decision to change the accounting treatment of loans has made HE spending a key Treasury issue for the first time in a long time.
So even if the Augar report is, sadly, buried by the political uncertainties, change will surely come. This year’s spending review will see university education directly competing against other parts of the education budget for the first time since higher fees were introduced. That’s a big change. For universities, the question is whether they want to work with us in the college sector or against us as we make the case for education spend in competition with other worthy priorities such as health, housing, transport, social care, environment and many others.
We have a strong case for investment, based on a vision of a dual system of higher technical qualifications and degrees, with colleges mainly delivering the former and universities mainly the latter, but with those well-placed delivering both. A vision which shows the inter-dependence between colleges and universities and which respects the vital roles both play. Together we can offer every young person and adult the opportunities which they want and need, and deliver the government’s priorities of social mobility, regional growth and productivity.
With the uncertainty our country faces, it would be such a shame if we failed to campaign together. Universities may well be able to draw on a stronger lobby, on influential alumni and on greater resources to ensure that they win but that would impoverish our society and reduce the life chances of millions of adults. It is time for colleges and universities to come together, recognise our different roles and show that there is space and need for both to thrive.
David Hughes is chief executive of the Association of Colleges