We welcomed the Post-18 Review last year. It promised to rebalance a tertiary education system which has sometimes seemed shaped by history rather than by what individual students need.
Our members told us first hand of the difficulties they faced when trying to meet these needs, too often stifled by the bureaucratic hoops required to access funding and the challenge of innovating in a sector not designed with competition in mind.
The experience of such providers in straddling the two stools of further and higher education, and the way in which funding policies have driven many to prioritise full honours degrees over the actual learning needs of students, is woven through the panel’s report. It is just a shame they failed to recognise this, not mentioning independent providers once in their overview of the sector, and exhibiting a peculiar lack of interest in these uniquely positioned providers. This is especially strange given that independent providers already make up 20% of the OfS Register and collectively teach 100,000 students across the UK.
Independent providers are the fastest growing part of the higher education sector, in part because they identify and address gaps which exist in the provision offered by the publicly funded mainstream. Many sit at the crossroads of higher education, technical education and industry, working with employers to create cutting-edge courses for job-ready graduates. Many also use their immersive vocational learning environments to create pathways through further and higher education and into professional networks for groups of students who might otherwise lack the social capital or academic record to have any hope of breaking through.
If they had taken the time to get to know them, the Panel would have found a group of institutions who have grappled for years with many of the very issues addressed in the report and are well placed to help design the solutions. Independent providers have been at the forefront of flexible and alternative routes through tertiary education, pioneering the provision of accelerated degrees, modular learning, blended delivery, multiple start dates and continuous enrolment, industry collaboration and programmes which interweave technical skills and academic education. This flexibility and willingness to do things differently has attracted underprovided groups such as mature students, professional learners and career changers, with 81% of starters being over 21 and 38% over 30.
This is lifelong learning in action, and many of these students do not need a full degree in order to secure the new job or promotion they want. The Panel’s approach here is very welcome, with the lifelong learning allowance a policy whose time has come, and the move to fund modular learning ‘by credit’ a cornerstone of Independent HE’s policy platform since 2015. A decision to fund learning not tied to a discrete qualification would be revolutionary, and our members are ready to meet the demand they know is there.
While this would finally enable a decelerated learning model, the Panel failed to recognise the scale of the corresponding opportunity to turbocharge accelerated degrees. Independent providers lead in this area, with DfE estimating that just six IPs account for 1,750 of 2,500 currently on such programmes, with the remaining 750 spread across 24 public universities. Accelerated degrees are tailor made for career-focused learners, and when combined with an integrated foundation year can be game changers for widening access to certain industries for students from disadvantaged backgrounds.
It is a great shame that the Panel had nothing to contribute on how we might improve the incentives to support the development of this provision, which has the potential to appeal to a far wider group of students than currently get to benefit. The 20% uplift to fees agreed earlier this year was already below what our members told us they need to deliver a truly excellent accelerated programme, and if the Panel’s proposed reduction in the fee cap goes ahead, it will further erode the funding available.
Don’t rock the foundations
More disturbing by far, however, is the proposal to remove funding at a stroke from the foundation years offered by universities and independent colleges. This decision by the Panel is perplexing in a month when the OfS published new research showing how effective these courses are at enabling students without A Levels or equivalent to progress and succeed on an undergraduate degree. Our members can point to countless personal stories of lives transformed because they recognised the potential in someone without prior academic achievement, designed a programme with their particular circumstances in mind, and offered them the individual support they found lacking in their previous school or college environment.
More research and proper data collection is needed in order to understand what works best on these programmes, but the government should not throw the baby out with the bathwater and leave access entirely in the hands of an FE sector which has failed to provide adequately in the past.
One thing on which we agree wholeheartedly with Philip Augar and his panellists is that not everyone needs a university education. There are many good careers now and there will be many more in the future where a higher technical education will be not just an alternative but the preferred option. We applaud the Panel’s bold recommendations which take aim squarely at the assumption that ‘vocational’ education must always be a poor relation of the academic, and urge the government to go further. Parity of esteem will only follow parity of funding, and the Panel are right to focus on this, but it also requires that technical institutions enjoy the same autonomy as universities to design, deliver and award their own qualifications, enabling them to remain on the cutting edge.
Many of our members have struggled to find suitable validation arrangements for their level 5 technical courses, while Taught Degree and Foundation Degree Awarding Powers have been out of reach for reasons of bureaucratic technicality. The Institutes of Technology programme is promising but too small scale and centrally managed. If we are to see genuine technical centres of excellence emerge and become beacons for the sector, the government must make available new Higher Technical Awarding Powers which are accessible to all providers who can demonstrate they meet the quality bar expected of a new generation of independent specialist technical institutes.