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FE White Paper: boost for status of colleges needs proper funding to make it fly

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 25 January 2021

Andy Green.

The much-delayed Government White Paper on skills (Skills for Jobs: Lifelong Learning for Opportunities and Growth), published last Thursday, holds few surprises; it has already been widely trailed in Government announcements and reforms over the past year. What is most notable, though – and very welcome –  is its unusually strong statements about the centrality of Further Education Colleges to the Government’s skills agenda in post-Brexit Britain, arguably a distinctive contribution from the current Secretary of State for Education.

In his strategic speech to the Social Market Foundation last June, Gavin Williamson positioned himself as the champion of Further Education and the ‘forgotten 50 percent’ who do not go to university. He promised to be the Secretary of State who would finally ensure that technical education in Britain achieved the prominence and status it deserved.

His rationale is widely shared: that ‘building back’ after the pandemic will require a sustained focus on addressing the shortages in higher technical skills which have been growing in recent years and will be amplified by Brexit. FE colleges can be – and should be – central to this endeavour, he says, and this requires a re-balancing of priorities regarding provision in FE and HE.

Williamson pointed to high levels of graduate under-employment, noting that those following higher technical courses often have better job prospects and higher earnings. This argument, and the argument for re-balancing further and higher education, has been strongly promoted by the LLAKES Centre over the past five years, including in our 2019 submission to the House of Commons Education Committee Inquiry into Adult Skills and Lifelong Learning, in Geoff Mason’s recent research paper for LLAKES and in my own article in Academia. Indeed, in making his case, Williamson cites LLAKES findings on the relatively high levels of graduate under-employment in Britain and on the singular absence in England of intergenerational improvement in core skills.

Williamson’s bold promises include: improving core skills provision (extended to ‘digital skills’); increasing participation on high quality technical courses in colleges (at levels 4 and 5) to meet demand; and expanding employer-led apprenticeships to create the ‘world class, German style apprenticeship system’ which he says is fundamental for social mobility. The question is how far the policies outlined in the White Paper can deliver on these desirable outcomes.

The White Paper brings together existing policies and new initiatives. The ‘Lifetime Skills Guarantee’, first announced last September, includes a welcome commitment to giving adults free access to general and technical level 3 qualifications.

Traditional courses are to be supplemented by 12-16 week ‘skills bootcamps’ to boost adults’ employability in key high demand sectors. These proposals are supported by the £375m a year promised by the Chancellor at the last spending review, including £95m for the new adult level 3 offer, and £43m to expand the ‘bootcamps’.

The White Paper also commits to expanding the new Institutes of Technology (collaborations between FE, HE and employers) from 12 to 20 by the end of this parliament and to the rolling out of Local Skills Improvement Plans through college/employer collaborations led by chambers of commerce. The objective is to support colleges in delivering on local skills priorities.

The White Paper includes some new measures for colleges to help reduce funding bureaucracy and improve governance; enhance the training, recruitment and professional development of college lecturers; supporting college links to local businesses and the development of Local Improvement Plans.

The most ambitious of the new announcements is the promised ‘Lifelong Learning Entitlement’ to be rolled out after 2025, which seems to be based on earlier proposals from the Liberal Party and Tom Schuller et al., as published by the LLAKES Centre. This will provide adults over 18 with flexible access to student loans to cover four years of full-time learning on a recognised course, at any point in their adult lives. The policy is flagged as requiring major changes to higher education funding and is subject to further consultation. As with the other new announcements, the White Paper is rather short on details.

Key questions must be asked on whether the announcements include the necessary additional funding for FE and whether the measures proposed do indeed take us further towards achieving a ‘world class’ technical education and training system.

The promises on funding are far from reassuring. Adult and further education have suffered a very large drop in funding over the past eight years, due to declining enrolments and reductions in core funding per full-time student. The latter amounted to 36 percent in real terms in total between 2012 and 2018 (23 percent for FE colleges). Over 100 FE colleges have found themselves in financial difficulties as a result, according the National Audit Office. Yet, the White Paper does little to restore former levels of funding.

There is a commitment to reverse the cut (to £3500 pa per full-time student) in core funding for 18-year-olds, as recommended by the Augar review. However, no promises have been made to improve the overall baseline funding per student for all those aged 16 and over.  Universities still receive on average over £10 000 a year for each full-time undergraduate student, 2.5 times more than the core funding per full-time student in FE colleges (around £4000 pa). Nor will the proposed ‘Lifetime Learning Entitlement’ necessarily have much effect on the teaching resource gap between FE and HE, since universities will still be able to charge higher fees than colleges if this is left to the market.

Only £200 m. in capital funding for the improvement of colleges estates and equipment has been promised for the current year, with little real terms increase over the next five. No announcements have been made about raising the pay of college lecturers which lags behind that of schoolteachers by around 17 percent. With these limited resources there will be no re-balancing of resourcing between further and higher education and it is hard to see how the FE sector will be able to deliver on the ambitious targets set by the White Paper for improving course offer and quality, let alone for winning reputational parity for technical education.

Despite the reforms that followed the Sainsbury Review, and even with the further improvements promised in the White Paper for expanding high quality, employer led, higher technical courses, the achievement of a ‘world class’ German style technical education system still seems a long way off.

Read a longer version of this post here.

Photo: Merton FE College by Images George Rex via Creative Commons

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