For two decades our education system has been firmly focused on helping more young people to experience higher education – increasingly through a residential model, usually leading to a bachelor’s degree. The consensus, led or at least underlined by the Blairite target of 50% of young adults progressing to higher education, has brought enormous benefits for those students and the economy – but at what cost?
Falling off the belt
By 2017, 49% of 30-year-olds will have experienced higher education, helping many of them to realise their talents and go onto better jobs and better lives. But what about the 51% of 30-year-olds who have not? We have allowed the education system to become like a conveyor belt for the successful, elevating them through GCSEs and A Levels or BTECs onto a bachelor’s degree and a decent job. That’s all well and good for those able to stay on the belt, but not so good for those who fall off it at any stage – and for reasons often nothing to do with potential or ability.
Poor GCSE results at 16 make it very unlikely that you will go onto HE, and the same is true of poor A Level or BTEC results at 18. We have a high stakes examination system at 16 and 18 which is harsh to the extreme, compounded by funding which falls off dramatically for those who have done least well. We have also allowed funding for 16-to 19-year-olds to reduce by 13% over the last decade, so there is less support at this pivotal stage of life – and funding for adult learning has halved in the last decade, resulting in fewer opportunities for people to re-enter learning, re-train or upskill.
There is also a growing number of employers finding it difficult to recruit people with the skills they need; a trend already strengthening as fewer EU nationals move into the UK.
The Government’s review of post-18 education and funding is therefore an important and welcome opportunity to address the focus and rebalance the investment. The review aims to secure and develop a joined-up system that works for everyone. That’s a big agenda, encompassing people with basic literacy, numeracy and digital skills needs at one extreme to those seeking postgraduate qualifications at the other.
At AoC, our starting point was to reject any approach which simply and solely increases the numbers taking the full-time bachelor’s route. That will not meet the needs of the economy, nor aspirations for a fairer society. Instead, we argue for more opportunities and routes for people to study flexibly, locally and throughout their lives. That’s why we are proposing the introduction of a minimum entry requirement for bachelor’s degrees, which will combat the rise in unconditional offers and the impact it is having on A-levels and vocational studies.
Our core proposal is then to develop and invest in a separate and distinct route, which will grow in prestige and profile over time. This will build on the best of what colleges and universities already do, but will not have to always articulate to a bachelor’s degree at Level 6 because it will be valued in its own right. We envisage a technical and professional route, from Level 2, that builds on and incorporates the qualifications which work in some sectors currently, all the way up to master’s degree level where it is needed.
We also believe more needs to be done to support people to achieve better skills at lower levels. We have come to accept that 5 good GCSEs (or equivalent) is the best launchpad for a good life and career. In today’s labour market, it can be argued that the best starting point is for everyone to achieve a Level 3 (A Level equivalent). A stronger focus on adults achieving Level 3 backed by better investment would then support better achievement at higher levels as well.
Skills for adults
As well as school and college leavers at age 18 or 19 to Foundation and Bachelor’s degrees, more focus on access for adults is also required. Colleges already play an important part in this, but our proposals would streamline the regulatory framework to support more colleges to achieve degree-awarding powers. We also set out the case for reforms to higher education fees and student support, shifting investment to adult skills and to a beefed-up National Retraining Scheme.
Taken together, these changes would help deliver a system which can support many more people to train and re-train across 50-year careers, allowing them to realise their ambitions and talents. Our labour market will need people to adapt as technology advances at ever-increasing speeds. These changes would also allow colleges to do more of what they are already so good at – helping people to progress to higher learning and better jobs through a range of routes which should be properly accessible to them, whether in work, college or university.
There is so much potential for this Review to address a system that really needs updating so that it reflects the needs of everyone, but we can only hope that is doesn’t get hijacked by the fashionable focus on higher education fees and student debt. It is right that the Review examines this and secures the future for the Bachelor’s route, but not at the expense of the wider system because this is a Review for every adult, not just the advantaged who reach higher education. We fully support more people progressing further and, of course, we believe that a highly educated population is good for our country in so many ways. But the system needs reform because there is too much focus on meeting the needs of well-qualified 18-year-olds while the rest of the working age population gets left behind.