Technical breakthrough – the moral quandaries of the skills debate

A new essay for Policy Exchange proposes that universities should spearhead higher level skills provision. Debbie McVitty explores the economic and moral arguments driving the skills debate.

The government’s post-compulsory skills agenda is patchy at present – we’re expecting a white paper shortly, though it would not be surprising if this was delayed to the new year, given all the challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic.

But we know there are some key elements, outlined in the Prime Minister’s recent speech on the subject:

  • A flexible lifelong loan entitlement, enabling access to all forms of post-compulsory education for four years
  • A new suite of national higher technical qualifications, at levels four and five
  • The expansion of apprenticeships

Universities collectively have broadly welcomed this agenda, in part because it’s good politics to do so, and in part because the sector – whatever may be said of it – does have a moral compass, and recognises the social impact of reduced investment in FE.

But there’s been a slight fastidiousness about it, a focus on the dangers of a “them and us” model vis-a-vis universities and colleges, and on describing and defending all of the ways universities already partner with FE, rather than a detailed engagement with the policy debate as it is.

The new report from Policy Exchange, Technical breakthrough: delivering Britain’s higher level skills, authored by vice chancellor of Nottingham Trent University Edward Peck, Rick Pickford and Will Rossiter, and prefaced with an introduction from Policy Exchange’s Head of Demography, Immigration and Integration, David Goodhart, displays no such fastidiousness.

Moral economics

Goodhart’s introduction illustrates the potent mixture of economic instrumentalism and moral imperative that is providing the underpinning rationale for a shift in approach. Part of the challenge for HE is that to take issue with the more troubling aspects of the economic argument risks putting oneself on the wrong side of the moral case.

There are those who perceive the government’s policy intentions on skills to amount to a repudiation of the essential value and purpose of higher education. And there’s a danger, in the context of wider political tensions, that the skills agenda becomes just another front in the ideological culture wars.

It is worth recalling, then, that the Labour Party under Ed Milliband’s leadership attempted to broaden the debate about what it dubbed “the other 50 per cent” – those who do not progress seamlessly from school or college into higher education. And it is entirely feasible that a version of the Augar review commissioned by a Labour government would have reached similar conclusions.

The policy problem is relatively straightforward: driven by a narrow funding model, the range of available educational pathways has narrowed to the extent that a full-time three year degree is the dominant route in post-compulsory education.

Around that route – which continues to be predominantly, though not exclusively, taken by the middle classes – accumulates prestige, status, and a potent mythology of personal transformation. And those who by choice or circumstance do not follow that path find their opportunities radically diminished; both on entering the labour market and later in life when it comes to the provision of adult education and opportunities to reskill.

Philosopher Michael Sandel, tracing the American version of this phenomenon in The Tyranny of Merit, argues that the impact on the non-college-educated is profound, extending beyond the loss of earnings potential to a more fundamental loss of dignity and political representation:

Building a politics around the idea that a college degree is a condition of dignified work and social esteem has a corrosive effect on democratic life. It devalues the contributions of those without a diploma, fuels prejudice against less-educated members of society, effectively excludes most working people from representative government, and provokes political backlash.

Sandel’s argument is vitally important to absorb, but it’s very hard for the higher education sector to do so, because so much of the narrative around the value of higher education has become caught up in the question of economic returns.

This is not simply an issue of policymakers failing to recognise the rich intellectual and social returns to higher education – though there is often a flavour of that in the political discourse.

And it really doesn’t help that the policy agenda is clearly double-edged – in its skills agenda the government clearly hopes to expand opportunity in the least expensive way possible, which you could argue is simply efficient, but is also problematic when the intended beneficiaries of the skills agenda are those who are already in a position of disadvantage.

But it is also in the way that universities themselves have historically embraced a narrative about social mobility, economic opportunity and personal transformation. This doesn’t mean that universities as institutions or the people who work in them actively look down on the people who do not go to university – though the implicit belief that we in HE do secretly think we are better than the less-educated does seem to be fuelling some of the culture wars narratives.

It does mean that universities collectively – clearly there are exceptions – have not traditionally been especially concerned with the fate of the people who do not attend them. And what in less politically turbulent times would go unremarked, or perhaps be perceived as a rational focus of organisational interests and resources on organisational mission, can be framed as neglect, or even, occasionally, contempt.

The report is accompanied by polling which reinforces the sense of the country being divided down the middle along educational lines: 55 per cent of those polled agree that the expansion of higher education “has been good for the country.”

There is a perception that some roles such as police officer and nursing should not require degree-level study, although that claim is pretty problematic when you consider how little the public at large presumably knows about the specific demands of those roles. And 42 per cent of graduates polled said their degree was either not necessary to their current role or that they rarely use the learning from it.

Technical breakthrough

Edward Peck, was, of course, a member of the Augar review team, and so is arguably the vice chancellor with the best claim to be close to the policy arguments on skills – some of which he rehearses here, such as the rising costs of the current system, the reported graduate skills mismatch, and the apparently diminishing returns to HE – all of which may be hotly contested, but function here as preamble.

Where it gets interesting, though, is in the breakdown of the issues attendant on any meaningful expansion of opportunity in post-compulsory education below degree level. Peck and his co-authors make the case that further education colleges are not especially well-positioned to expand delivery of higher level skills.

Though some colleges do provide courses at levels four and five, cohorts are small, argues Peck, are typically validated by an HE provider, and in many cases offer a pathway to a full degree. Universities, by contrast, especially those with a history of applied education, already have expertise in higher-level teaching, degree awarding powers, resource and organisational capacity, and recognition from employers.

The barrier to universities delivering these kinds of courses, Peck continues, is the perceived lack of demand for them. Opening up the funding system to allow for a more modular approach to accumulating qualifications could, theoretically, stimulate demand and address this issue.

The essay goes so far as to recommend, essentially, that no college be permitted to award higher level qualifications that does not already have degree awarding powers, unless there is a local case for it. To further develop college provision, it is argued, would simply mean the duplication of effort, provision developed piecemeal, rather than in a coordinated way with clear progression pathways, and additional complexity for employers and students.

Investing in higher level provision in FE colleges simply for the sake of investing in FE, the essay argues, makes for bad policy – instead, colleges should be encouraged (and funded) to focus on provision at level three and below, continuing to provide the pipeline into higher level study for those who aspire to it, allowing each part of the system to fulfill a different role.

The final piece of the puzzle is enhanced labour market intelligence that would enable the growth of provision more relevant to local employers and that could inform information, advice and guidance for students. This assumes that prospective students – or a significant subset of them – would be likely to be guided by employer need, rather than their own subject interests, which is debatable. But it’s hardly controversial to say that a greater degree of local coordination of provision would be beneficial and improved data could enable that.

The case study of Mansfield and Ashfield also makes the highly relevant point that “employer demand” cannot be the starting point for educational provision in areas where the economic paradigm is low-skill and low-wage. Investment to create more highly skilled jobs alongside the education pathways that equip people to do them is necessary to achieve full “levelling up”.

The essay rather glosses over the cost implications for its policy recommendations – suggesting that universities could reduce their cost base in delivering “no frills” qualifications through reduction in marketing spend, use of technology and, ominously, “developing new terms and conditions for staff.”

The strength of the argument is that it goes with the grain of likely student demand over the next decade without actively controlling student numbers in higher education. Assuming the government hopes to avoid a situation in which three-year full time degrees continue to dominate, it makes sense to find ways for universities to diversify their provision rather than restricting the number of university places, which would limit student choices and exacerbate existing educational divisions by siphoning off “other people’s children” into a less well-resourced alternative.

Mixed economy

In his introduction, Goodhart makes the pragmatic point that a government that has made much of investment in FE is unlikely to roll back on that commitment, and that what is likely to occur is a mixed economy of provision by FE and HE.

Though Peck’s argument does acknowledge regional variation, it also relies on the NTU model as a case study of what could work in the rest of the country. The challenge with skills is effective local and regional coordination. The government’s forthcoming white paper must describe a national policy agenda that creates the conditions for local provision, such as the Mansfield and Ashfield example that Peck describes, to flourish, while not restricting the ways by which it flourishes – all the while encouraging collaboration and avoiding “land grab” by particular institutions. No easy feat.

Developing new level four and five courses in partnership with employers, that meet the aspirations of those not traditionally disposed to higher education, that offer meaningful and recognised exit routes into employment, that have internal coherence and are intellectually robust (because the hope of personal transformation should absolutely not be the preserve of an academic “elite”) and being a true regional partner in economic regeneration is a significant challenge for any institution, whether in further or higher education.

Universities may in many regions be best positioned to deliver on the higher level skills agenda, but they should not enjoy monopoly rights on it.

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