We can all support the aims of the Skills and Post-16 Education Bill, but the details need work

For Association of Colleges Chief Executive David Hughes, the Skills and Post-16 Education Bill has a lot of potential - though amendments are needed to make it work for everyone.

David Hughes is Chief Executive of the Association of Colleges

The second reading of the Skills and Post-16 Education Bill felt like a significant step forward for post-16 education, not least because for once an education Bill was focused on colleges and on technical skills.

That’s no surprise given that the review chaired by Philip Augar had carried out the analysis, and so eloquently made the case for a re-balancing of post-18 education opportunities and funding. Of course, the idea of re-balancing can be viewed as a threat or an opportunity – depending on where you sit. For colleges it looks like an opportunity. For universities it might look less enticing. At the Association of Colleges, our hope is that we can work together to make it a win for both.

A common vision

We can surely all agree on the unifying ambition  to create a skills and education system that is fit for the future, and which offers opportunities for adults to learn at all levels throughout their lives. One that helps people to transform their life chances, supports sustainable business growth and supports healthy and cohesive communities. Pleasingly, peer after peer made clear that there is a growing cross-party consensus for that ambition, even if there is also recognition that there is some way to go before the Bill truly delivers it.

There are four areas of focus that colleges and universities should be coalescing around: setting a long term vision and strategy for lifelong learning; the lifelong loan entitlement; meeting local priorities; and, securing the resources to deliver it all. The actual Bill itself will not, on its own, achieve all of this, but the debate and widespread political support it generates can help make it happen over the next few years.

The focus is around the simple and compelling concept of a joined-up, long term national education and skills strategy. It would unite the work of all parts of the education system towards the same vision, to deliver on big priorities like levelling up, productivity, unemployment, sustainability targets, public health and mental well-being. The current lack of a strategy is part of the siloed and incoherent system which makes it so hard for people and employers to navigate and which excludes too many people.

The Bill and associated white paper do not sufficiently address this, dealing with only one part of the system (skills and colleges), without exploring the need for complementary alignment with universities, schools, and other providers. The potential is enormous, particularly in facing up to the major challenges of net zero and inclusion whilst helping to address productivity problems, unemployment and worrying trends in mental health. A strategy developed with education providers, communities, trade unions, students and the wider public as well as government and employers feels appropriate after such a unique period of lockdowns and reflections on what people value most in life.

Entitlements and guarantees

The Lifelong Loan Entitlement alongside the Lifetime Skills Guarantee are potential game-changers (although without the yet to be shared details it is hard to be sure). Peers have been clear in their amendments that, as well as tuition fee loans for Levels 4 and 5, there has to be support for maintenance and that the Guarantee needs to be put into statute and really mean a guarantee – for all levels of learning, for all ages, for repeat as well as first qualifications, and with the right student support and maintenance arrangements to be inclusive, including for universal credit claimants. The potential is there to inspire and motivate millions more adults into learning – in universities as well as colleges and other providers – and make more Treasury investment a real vote winner.

On localism and meeting needs the Bill introduces new acronyms and a new structure for planning, with LSIPs (Local Skills Improvement Plans) being developed by ERBs (employer representative bodies). Their aim is to engage more employers in agreeing local skills and labour market priorities which colleges will use to inform their education and training offer. With the right amendments this could result in all providers working to the same vision for their locality to complement the national strategy we are calling for.

The amendments though are critical because as well as the employer voice, there needs to be balancing input from students, trade unions, community organisations, colleges and other education providers. With that mix the LSIPs would be able to better reflect the nuanced mix of need, demands and aspirations for an area. Achieving that then leads to the need to include universities and schools as well as colleges in both the local planning and delivery arrangements as well as the accountabilities. The collaboration should be used to deepen partnerships across the education and skills landscape; to coordinate information, advice and guidance; develop clear pathways/progression between providers; offer better employer support across innovation and skills; and help education play its wider role in building healthy, connected communities.

The money

Those three reforms then offer the platform for the final area of focus – to persuade both Treasury and employers to invest more, in this year’s spending review and over the long term. Employers invest less in education and training in the UK than they do in other OECD countries, but the challenges of finding skilled recruits post-Brexit and because of the pandemic might see that change. The risk for universities is that funding is literally moved across to colleges, rather than more overall being invested. By working together on a joined-up system colleges and universities will be able to find their unique and vital parts to play with the investment they need to thrive.

For me I would also love to see a move to a single tertiary regulator, as exists in Scotland and is being moved towards in Wales. Meanwhile, the opportunity is there for colleges and universities to come together and advocate a whole education system approach so that we can move beyond the disjointed system we have that is not efficient or effective and doesn’t best meet the needs of students, communities and employers.

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