In what may prove to be her last major policy speech, a more relaxed Theresa May, seemingly unburdened from party and Brexit worries, told journalists to stop the fixation on higher education at the expense of further education. The prime minister is right.
Last week, the biggest review of post-18 education was published. The report includes a detailed raft of recommendations that, if implemented, could change the way our education system works, improving the life chances of millions.
The Augar review includes calls for the reversal of an arbitrary cut in the funding a student gets once they turn 18, the chance for everybody regardless of their age and circumstance to study for free until they achieve a level 3 (A-level equivalent) and a reinvigoration of colleges, which are central to so many of the recommendations.
Not just about tuition fees
There were 53 recommendations in total but only one that (most) of the media are talking about: tuition fees. There is an important conversation to be had about tuition fees and about the vital role of universities, but it shouldn’t be the only conversation. Half of the population have never been, and will never go, to university and their education and life chances have been ignored for far too long.
There are 9 million adults with poor basic skills, and even more with poor digital skills. Employers are consistently saying that it is harder than ever to find people with the right skills. Our education and training system has to change, and so does the way our society views education and training.
I have long suspected that further education is overlooked because people don’t understand it. And to a certain extent, that’s understandable because so few people in power have ever experienced it – most went to universities.
Colleges do so much for so many people – all ages, academic and technical, literacy and numeracy, apprenticeships, higher education, short and long courses – making it difficult for outsiders to get their head around the situation. That breadth is a strength, of course, because it meets the needs of so many people and communities.
Theresa May understands the importance of FE
The Augar report shows that with a bit of help and a bit of work, it is not that hard to understand and to value what colleges do in our society. With over 2.2 million students, we know that colleges have an enormous impact, and that is despite them being “overlooked, undervalued, and underfunded”, as the prime minister herself said.
Even just a year ago, I could not have imagined Theresa May giving the kind of speech she did last week. But after lots of research into further education as part of the Augar review, it’s clear that she and her team finally get just how important the sector is. As Stephen Exley set out so cogently, there are lots of reasons to believe that the report will remain overlooked. But for colleges and others who care, the challenge is making sure that her successor learns quickly why colleges matter so much.
David Hughes is chief executive of the Association of Colleges