Comparing skills policy in England and Scotland

While the policy problems may be similar, Ewart Keep finds that approaches to further and higher education are rapidly diverging between Scotland and England

Ewart Keep is Professor (emeritus) of Education, Training and Skills in Department of Education at Oxford University; and a board member of the Scottish Funding Council. This article is written in a personal capacity.

The publication of the Scottish Funding Council’s (SFC) Phase 3 final report from the Review of Coherent Provision and the Sustainability of Colleges and Universities reminds us yet again that the UK now encompasses dramatically different models for funding and managing both colleges (further education) and universities, and that the policy trajectories on these matters in England and Scotland continue to diverge.

This reflects the choice in England of quasi-markets for further and higher education overseen by a set of regulators. This market-based funding and governance comes with a logic based on student choice that drives competition between institutions, with a governmental expectation that sometimes elements of cooperation can and will occur where the government desires it.

Scotland by contrast maintains its preference for a system-led approach with a traditional funding council (covering both colleges and universities). The SFC Review takes the next logical step and seeks to evolve that system towards a more coordinated, cooperative model that embraces the notion of tertiary provision – the separation between further and higher education is over time blurred and replaced by a spectrum of varied post-compulsory offers, and more closely integrated joint working and governance arrangements.

Politics into policy

These national differences in turn reflect broader ideological schisms and priorities that frame the environments within which education policy is being developed. Scotland has a long-term economic and industrial development strategy, supported by three regional economic development agencies. It is also committed to an ambitious “fair transition” to net zero, and a “Fair Work” agenda that addresses issues such as the living wage, employee voice within the workplace, job quality, gender imbalances in the workforce and skills and training for older workers.

In England, by way of contrast, the policy context is a “levelling up” agenda that has yet to be specified in any detail, and a recently abandoned industrial strategy unveiled as recently as 2017. There is nothing like Scotland’s “fair work” agenda, and England also no longer possesses much policy machinery at national level for addressing economic development or business improvement and support.

Common problems, diverse solutions

Policy makers and practitioners in England and Scotland both face a set of common educational challenges. For example, recovering from the impacts of Covid-19, the transition to net zero, supporting economically disadvantaged communities and groups within society, and engineering ways to engage with and help meet the skill needs of employers by better aligning what the education and training system produces with what the labour market needs. Nevertheless, as the SFC review demonstrates, different national policy contexts will often lead thinking in divergent directions.

Perhaps the clearest example concerns inter-institutional cooperation and collaboration. England has a relatively small fund to which colleges can bid to support collaborative activity and leaves most other aspects of this challenge to individual institutions, be they colleges or universities. The final response to Augar may set out how both the colleges and university sectors should collaborate around the delivery of sub-degree qualifications, but what this will look like is at present unknown.

In Scotland, the approach to collaboration is of a fundamentally different order. A relatively high volume of Level 4 and 5 provision is already the responsibility of colleges, with linkages to universities and degrees delivered through local articulation agreements between institutions in the two sectors. Besides strengthening such agreements, the SFC review sets out a model for much closer joint working as a tertiary system emerges. This includes the development of a unified quality framework for colleges and universities (overseen by a single agency), and a new model of regional outcome agreements (to which funding is tied) that will come to span both the college and university sector within a given locality, with shared goals and targets.

A set of pilot Tertiary Provision Pathfinders (TPPs) will explore the development of these agreements, and also the more general evolution of the funding arrangements that is needed to deliver a more integrated and collaborative whole-system approach to teaching, research, innovation and innovation support. The SFC additionally proposes to investigate how activity in the senior phase of schooling (some of which the SFC already supports financially) can be more closely integrated with college and university teaching to produce a more seamless learner journey.

The policy laboratory

These kinds of divergence in national thinking and policy creates the opportunity for intra-UK comparison of the consequences and effectiveness of the different national approaches. Rather than compare either country with performance in an overseas jurisdiction, which might have a very different culture, history, institutional settlement, economic structure and labour market, intra-UK comparisons rest on many shared underlying characteristics which makes it easier to identify where and how particular policy choices are making a real difference to outcomes.

Social scientists sometimes refer to this opportunity as a form of “policy laboratory”. The publication of the SFC’s Coherence and Sustainability: A Review of Tertiary Education and Research report suggests that those with an interest in comparative HE policy should watch this space.

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