All the signs suggest that the post-18 review of education and funding panel report will be published this week. Even before the report has been published, it has provoked strong emotions, many based on so-called leaks.
For Theresa May, publishing the report will be one of her last acts as she departs Downing Street, so she will be hoping that it will secure some sort of legacy from her spell as prime minister.
Universities seem to be hoping that at least some of the recommendations never get beyond the report, particularly the expected reduction in the fee cap. Interestingly, education secretary Damian Hinds has already taken to the media to debunk the universities’ claims that a reduced fee will lead to financial meltdown and a backwards step in social mobility. That schism sadly will most likely dominate media coverage, at the expense of proper consideration of the whole package of proposals.
More news: Post-18 review 'to recommend FE loans'
Colleges expecting little
Many colleges, on the other hand, will be expecting little from the report, in part because their low expectation of government policies is often close to reality. According to speculation, this time around colleges should be largely pleased with some welcome recommendations - particularly with the recognition of their vital role. I am hopeful that the report will secure the position of colleges in the mid-level/intermediate education and skills space, leading on technical education for young people and adults. It sounds like the report will also recognise the fantastic work that colleges carry out with employers and in achieving social mobility for millions of people, through a local community and labour market focus which few other institutions can rival.
The original plan, from the prime minister, was for the report recommendations to feed directly into this year’s spending review, with funding announcements in the autumn.
That plan has been derailed by Brexit and there is great speculation about whether the report recommendations will ever be implemented, even if it does get published this week. It’s clear that there are many who hope that the report simply gathers dust because of their concerns about the expected fee cap reduction recommendation.
Augar review: Wide-ranging recommendations
Reducing the report to that one issue may be clever lobbying but is rather disingenuous, given the wider remit of the review and the wide-ranging recommendations which the report will make.
Even if the report is largely overlooked, the issues it is attempting to address will not go away. We have in England a heavily biased post-18 education landscape, with a large investment in less than half of the population overshadowing the gross under-investment in millions of adults. It results in no restrictions on people being supported to study for three-year Bachelor’s degrees whilst opportunities for adults to learn English for speakers of other languages, literacy, numeracy and other lower-level qualifications have halved in the last decade and are strictly capped.
To put this another way, we have seen increased opportunities for social mobility for those successfully achieving higher education entry requirements, whilst social mobility at lower levels has been severely restricted. Addressing the latter does not have to involve restricting the former, but that zero-sum thinking seems to have already dominated the responses. That is shameful, because we should be arguing for better investment in education for all adults, at all levels, irrespective of the institutions they choose.
'Widening skills gaps'
Compared with our OECD competitors, our government and employers invest too little and we risk falling behind even further at current funding levels. Employers are reporting widening skills gaps, with hard-to-fill vacancies rising across the economy. The post-18 review report is designed to help address that, as well as the wider social mobility issues, and it should be considered carefully in that context. The report also lands at an interesting time for Treasury, with pressure on them to account differently for loans, bringing more focus on the costs of the current higher education system. Even if the report is ignored, that Treasury interest will not go away as they apply their value for money and return on investment lenses onto degrees and universities.
I have no doubt that there will be views, conclusions and recommendations in the report which I and many others will not fully agree with, but I hope that there is a genuine attempt to discuss and debate the proposals in the round. Responding to the fee cap recommendation alone would do a great disservice to the life chances of millions of people and would undermine the genuine attempts to design a more balanced post-18 system. We can and must do better than that.
David Hughes is chief executive of the Association of Colleges