Recent media focus on the post-18 review of education and funding has been predictably narrow and probably misleading, with so-called leaks presumably designed to scare the government away from vital reforms. Read too much of it in isolation and one could be forgiven for thinking that Augar had been solely and simply tasked with attacking university viability and restricting access to higher education by way of lower fees and capping student numbers.
It is a shame that it has come to this because it does a disservice to the review’s wider and vitally important focus. The terms of reference the Prime Minister gave Philip Augar and his panel were to review post-18 education and funding “to ensure a joined-up system that works for everyone” and, among other things, to deliver the “skills that we need as a country.” I hope that the panel is allowed to deliver on that, and I hope that the report is not lost in the current political quagmire. We have spent far too long supporting a culture in which the only post-18 offer that mattered was going to university and which ignored the needs of millions of adults.
Don’t get me wrong, university viability, student debt and access to higher education are all vital issues which require care and attention as part of the post-18 system. However, given that the sector I’ve worked in for over 20 years has seen funding halved for adult further education in the last decade, I’m sure you’ll forgive me for wanting the review to deliver on more than just that.
There are four outcomes I am looking for from the Augar review which will need proper consideration as part of the next spending review, as well as careful implementation over the coming years. All four need to be part of a new vision for post-18 education and skills which will lead to a fair distribution of resources and efforts.
One: More opportunities for people at all levels of learning, including flexible learning for people of all ages, particularly those in work or with caring responsibilities.
Universities have rightly been making the case that social mobility might suffer if there are fewer opportunities to go to university. What they mean, mostly, is social mobility for the 18 year-olds who have reached level three, not for the 40 per cent who don’t. Their social mobility is just as important, and will rely on better access to more opportunities for literacy, numeracy, ESoL, level two and level three in colleges, as well as apprenticeships. Sadly, all of those are restricted by funding which has been severely cut during the last decade. The review needs to offer growth and investment for everyone.
Two: Secure a proper choice for young people coming out of college or school at 18 which includes full-time residential bachelor’s degrees, higher level apprenticeships and a new suite of higher technical qualifications.
A lot of the noise about the review has been a fear that university numbers will be capped. This is understandable but misses the obvious question of why higher education numbers are not capped when every other part of the post-18 system is. In National Apprenticeships Week, it is ironic that the government’s flagship skills policy is being held back by strict and restrictive caps on apprenticeships in small and medium enterprises. That means simply that an 18 year-old with suitable qualifications can go onto a three-year bachelor’s degree but might struggle to find an apprenticeship. Systemic: no. Fair: no. Encouraging the right choices: no.
Three: A clearer offer to employers to help them to recruit and develop the people they need.
Universities rightly, once again, point to skills shortages at graduate level but seem to overlook the enormous problems at levels three, four and five. The announcement before Christmas by the Secretary of State, Damian Hinds, of new higher technical qualifications was heartening; the review will need to offer more detail about how these will be developed and the incentives for colleges and students to make them a reality. Introducing these new qualifications cannot happen fast enough for the employers facing increasing problems recruiting because of the Brexit effect on skilled migration.
Four: A joined-up system post-18 which supports colleges and universities to flourish, in more collaborative environment in which both can play to their strengths.
It has been encouraging over recent weeks to have support for colleges from all quarters. Backbench MPs, the CBI, the Russell Group, Universities UK, the Chief Inspector and many more have all shown unequivocal support for greater investment in colleges. The review will need to address the unique roles that colleges and universities play in all of this as well as the overlaps between them. Every community needs a successful college, and we need thriving universities too. There is room for both and a need for both.
All we need now is for the Chancellor to take note and act. It won’t be easy. The ONS decision on the accounting treatment of student loans highlights the current imbalances very starkly. Higher education loans will cost the Treasury around £12 billion per year. That compares with the adult education budget at £1.5 billion and the apprenticeships budget at around £2 billion. Funding rates for colleges have been stuck for eight years and colleges have had to face 30 per cent real-terms cuts in overall income. That must change if the review is to deliver on its remit.
Our argument at AoC has always been that a modern, successful country will need higher overall levels of educational spend than we currently have. We will continue to push for that and we’ll do it with our university partners, because every adult deserves better chances to a good education, not just the half that can access higher education.