The Augar review of post-18 education is, remarkably enough, the first major government report since Robbins in 1963 to attempt to address all of post-18 education in England and to consider how public support might be distributed between its two main parts.
For this alone, it is to be much welcomed. Many of the problems we now face have to do with our stubborn failure to think in a coherent, systemic way about our education system and to find ways forward that do not, as per habit, pit one clan against another.
The report contains a number of positive proposals, including increasing investment in further education and its workforce, reversing the core funding rate reduction for 18-year-olds and introducing simplified funding arrangements to allow colleges to plan more flexibly and in the longer term. This shows that the panel listened respectfully and seriously to the concerns of the sector.
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Also welcome is the inclusion of proposals for the return of maintenance grants in higher education, the reduction of the fee cap and the end of the ELQ (equivalent or lower-level qualifications) funding rule, which has caused so much damage to part-time higher education in England, including the Open University.
A narrow envelope of possibilities
However, I fear that for all its good intentions, the report is not nearly as bold or comprehensive as it would need to be to deliver a truly tertiary education system that is genuinely animated by the same, connecting sense of core purpose, while reversing decades of neglect to restore the status and prestige of FE and skills.
This is partly because of the constraints within which it worked, in particular, those concerning current funding levels and governance arrangements. I would like, for once, to see a commission prepared to begin with what we actually need in order to create a fair, prosperous and equitable society, rather than with the narrow envelope of possibilities approved by government, usually for deeply political reasons.
One unfortunate consequence of this is the report’s recommendation that higher education absorbs a freeze in per-student resources to fund investment in FE and apprenticeships. I am uncomfortable with the idea of moving cash from one sector to the other, as well as with the idea, also expressed in the report, that increasing funding in STEM must mean depressing funding in the arts.
It is also disappointing to find the report using the language of markets, competition and value for money throughout – hardly the stuff to stimulate cross-sectoral cooperation. And while the social and civic role of universities is acknowledged as among the core purposes of tertiary education, it is placed very much as subordinate to economic value. Perhaps because of this narrow and rather meagre view of the value of education, there is little in the report on lifelong learning, another area of post-18 provision in desperate need of support and renewal.
I would like to see us think much more openly about what it would mean to be ambitious for everyone. We shouldn’t be afraid to ask for things that, from the centre, look unachievable, remembering that meaningful change of the sort we need very rarely originates there.
Judgements about what to prioritise and where cooperation can be most effective are often best made at local level, and there has been much interest in this notion in FE, largely in response to the localism agenda of the past couple of decades. But making these judgements in an effective, meaningful way requires both a coherent approach and a comprehensive view.
FE and HE's missions must be brought together
It is particularly important that in planning education, we involve all relevant stakeholders. This means no longer treating certain parts of the eco-system as off-limits. We need, in particular, to challenge the factors that exercise a disproportionately negative influence on the sector as a whole, while benefiting only a minority, most significantly the private school system and its dominance of elite HE places. It pains me to think of the huge loss of talent this may represent – perhaps, with the right encouragement, Boris Johnson might have become a pretty good spot welder or cabinetmaker. Now, there’s a thought.
Collaboration must be real, meaningful and lived. All the key players should be engaged together on the same basis and at the same level. And, of course, genuine, successful collaboration requires all sectors to be self-confident, sure of their mission and with the resources necessary to flourish. For true partnership, we need a strong, stable FE sector, properly funded and empowered to drive its own improvements in teaching and learning. This won’t happen simply through intensifying the scramble for limited resources.
FE and HE have important social and civic missions, but these missions need to be brought together, and thought about in a way that includes and does not ignore all the other pieces of the jigsaw. We need a new approach to these relationships, one founded on a common sense of what, as a system, we want to achieve. Too often, partnership in education turns out to be a largely bureaucratic exercise. It leaves us working on our own part of the whole – but separately – then trying to squeeze the pieces of the jigsaw together afterwards.
This is not an approach equal to the challenges of the future. We need to work on the whole together, holistically, as it were, with a shared understanding and sense of purpose. Of course, we work in our separate, sometimes connected, spaces. Of course, we have our unique roles, our special functions. But it is our shared professional mission that connects us. This, if you like, is the join, the thing that unites us, and one thing I have learned from decades of involvement in partnership work and collaborative ventures on both sides of the border is that it is the strength of this join that matters above everything else. When the join matters so much, learning and living the leadership of inter-dependence emerges as the new way.
Dame Ruth Silver is president of the Further Education Trust for Leadership