The last time I was at Battersea Power Station was in March 2006 for the launch of a White Paper called Further Education: raising skills, improving life chances, with Gordon Brown and Bill Rammell amongst others.
I suspect that I was the only person at that launch to be back at Battersea Power Station last Thursday for a speech by Damian Hinds, the current Secretary of State for Education.
Back in 2006 things were different. There was a (new-ish) Labour government, grand plans for the site, rising public expenditure, the Learning and Skills Council in place, and a very centralist and managerialist approach to further education. A lot has changed since then. We’ve had the credit crunch, a decade of austerity, Brexit, booming student loans, and the Post-18 Review of Education and Funding underway.
I was not expecting much from Hinds’s speech given that the Augar-led panel won’t be reporting until next year. The speech set out the next phase of implementing the new T levels and the low levels of productivity in the UK. No surprises there. The genuine surprise on my part came when Hinds moved onto how he saw the skills and productivity challenge as core business for colleges, making a very strong case for their vital role as part of the national infrastructure and in delivering the government’s industrial strategy. That’s the start of a great vision for our education and skills system.
The speech got even better with the news that DfE proposes developing a new framework for level 4 and level 5 qualifications which will be called higher technical qualifications, building on T levels. That’s what we proposed in our submission to the Augar panel, so it’s good that DfE has been taking note and hopefully bodes well for other proposals we made in our most recent paper.
Call off the fight
The review has clearly caused great concern amongst universities and much optimism amongst colleges. I suspect that the outcome will be better for the former and not quite as good for the latter. What is sad though, is how many people seem to want to set this up as a fight between universities and colleges. That’s not how I see it and at the Association of Colleges, we have worked very hard not to make it an either/or debate.
We are very clear that we want to see a proper tertiary system in place which sets out the range of options for young people and adults from the age of 18. Those options must include high quality and properly funded university education. But as the Secretary of State acknowledged, the system has not been fair to every adult, and too many people are being denied opportunities to improve their work and life chances. That’s not the fault of universities, but it is the consequence of decisions by successive governments to prioritise investment in HE rather than seeking a balance across all post-18.
A new alliance
We want there to be greater recognition and support for the vital roles that colleges play in that system, alongside others. We will fight for and argue for more investment in colleges to help more people. But I’d rather have that fight in alliance with universities and schools rather than in some false competition with them. We need Treasury and the rest of the government to recognise that the success of our country in part lies in the whole education and skills system we invest in – from cradle to grave. All the evidence shows that the investment in intermediate and higher technical skills has been lacking. Hinds now understands that and the Augar panel will have seen the same evidence, so I suspect (and hope) that they will come to the same conclusion.
I am hoping therefore that Augar will present us with a vision of a new tertiary system which pulls together all the options that are needed for people at different stages in their lives, at different levels, focused on progression to help people realise their ambitions, and for employers to have resourceful people with skills to improve productivity.
That tertiary system will need to show how people can navigate their way through different levels of achievement, different types of learning and how it will work over increasingly long lives. It will also have to propose a new balanced set of investments by the government, employers and individuals in a tough funding environment. This is not an easy task, but one which I am sure the Augar panel will front up to.
Most importantly, we need to work together across colleges and universities to make the case for investment in every adult to achieve higher levels of skills.