Solving the UK’s productivity puzzle is the holy grail of today’s politics.
Successive governments have taken different approaches over the last decade.
This Government has staked its bid on levelling up technical skills in every corner of the country. It hopes that overcoming the UK’s lagging global position in Level 4 and 5 qualifications will craft a workforce that can meet the challenges of the modern economy.
The qualifications in the middle
What are these Level 4 and 5 qualifications? What kinds of learning do they offer? They are higher apprenticeships, certificates, diplomas, and foundation degrees. Many are hybrid vocational credentials that bridge theory and practice specific to their subject. Learners who take them gain a mixture of academic knowledge and ‘technical’ understanding of their chosen fields.
The Government has started to create a raft of new integrated qualifications at Level 3 by introducing T-levels as an alternative to A levels and BTECs. What better way to encourage learners to develop higher-level integrated understanding of their expert areas than by extending T level logic into post-18 educational space?
This means new hybrid courses with academic and technical content. So far, the Government has encouraged higher education institutions to expand into level 4 and 5. This is certainly part of the equation. But some of the attention should also be invested directly into the existing provision by the further education sector.
The place in FE
For many people, FE colleges are the fulcrum around which their transition from primary and secondary education to higher learning turns. Many offer dedicated courses to train uniformed and emergency service workers from scratch. Others prepare learners for careers in specialist sectors, such as real estate and construction, food and agritech, or the performing arts.
Colleges also lead the field for place-based education in the UK. According to the Association of Colleges, the average distance between a student’s home postcode and their learning location is only 15 miles for FE colleges, compared to a whopping 54 miles for universities. Colleges thus act as ready-made epicentres for local learning ecosystems. They can act as higher skills hubs for clusters of local schools and school trusts. And they are a way for the UK’s universities to gain a regional presence through specialist FE/HE collaboration.
The Government needs to explore joined-up answers to boosting Level 4 and 5 provision. Rather than laying all the onus on the HE sector, it should foster a new class of Local Education Partnerships where schools, colleges, and universities enjoy equal say. These partnerships should aim to deliver holistic learning pathways stretching from school to university qualifications, which learners can access at any point in their lives. And FE colleges should be the ones holding primary responsibility for the middle stages of these pathways.
Local Education Partnerships need to speak with one voice on behalf of local skills training and knowledge provision in the Government’s new Local Skills Improvement Plans. They should play the same role as Employer Representative Bodies do for local businesses—whether the body in question is a county chamber of commerce, Local Enterprise Partnership, or something else.
Here again, the FE sector has a unique advantage. Through the apprenticeship system, through their inclusion of experienced sector staff as dual professional tutors, and through their diverse suite of vocational training options, colleges enjoy long-standing ties to industry. Under the new regime of modular learning, many on-the-job skills improvement programmes will align closely to courses that FE colleges already offer, such as in digital literacy, management, accountancy, or teacher training.
So far, the Government has pushed for closer engagement between universities and business through the Knowledge Exchange Framework (KEF) and through Science and Innovation Audits. Again, these certainly have their place. But they should not crowd out the role colleges can play as conduits between the needs and interests of local employers and educators. Put simply, any model of integrating skills provision and productivity that ignores the FE sector will be substantially poorer and less effective for it.
But colleges cannot act as an engine for local regeneration without serious streamlining of the funding available to them. Local learning and knowledge development finance is scattered across a host of different sources: the Adult Education Budget, National Skills Fund, Skills Development Fund, UK Shared Prosperity Fund, the Multiply numeracy programme, and 16–19 Tuition Fund for Covid-19 recovery, not to mention endless rounds of capital funding bids.
These pots of funding should be combined into unified Local Skills Development Funds, operated at the discretion of local authorities. Local authorities can then support large-scale joined-up learning investments, and target funds at the particular focuses of their Local Education Partnerships. This helps local areas become sector specialists, encouraging an influx of talent that upskills using the courses offered by local colleges.
To future-proof these specialised local learning ecosystems, a key priority must be dramatically higher investment in teacher training. Without a serious cash injection, school and college courses risk being starved of high-quality teaching and support staff. Levelling up local areas means levelling up local learners, and targeting funds at teacher training will put local skills provision on a more secure long-term basis.
The UK has the chance to become a global leader in skills. It is already well-known the world over for its university sector, but it is time to bring the country’s other educational assets out of its shadow. By putting colleges at the centre of its levelling up agenda, the Government has a chance to make its aspiration for a technical skills revolution a reality.