Last September Boris Johnson delivered a well-received speech at Exeter College setting out the introduction of a Lifetime Skills Guarantee. I was struck by one Johnsonian phrase: “it is time to end this bogus distinction between FE and HE” because “everything is ultimately a skill… whether it is bricklaying [or] Greek philosophy”. I suspect the PM is more up to speed on one rather than the other, although his hero Winston Churchill was adept at both.
With the publication on 21 January of the Skills for Jobs White Paper, the vision set out in the PM’s speech has been fleshed out. The changes are evolutionary rather than revolutionary, building on existing architecture eg T levels, institutes of technology, employer engagement in curriculum design and standards and the apprenticeship programme. The lack of a three-year comprehensive spending review has perhaps taken some of the shine off investment that might otherwise be available, but there are some very welcome developments.
What is now unarguably clear is that the spotlight is shifting from the 50% who go to university to those who don’t. Brexit and the pandemic have cruelly exposed a structural weakness in the UK economy we have known about for decades but never solved; a chronic skills shortage holding back productivity and sucking in overseas talent to plug the gaps. Compared with other advanced economies such as Germany and Canada we have neglected sub-degree skills and perpetuated a system whereby university was prioritised socially, culturally, economically and intellectually over all other routes to employment.
This will not be put right overnight. There have been many false dawns with other reviews and white papers over the years. A plethora of qualifications have never managed to dislodge the gold standard of A levels and the Government’s target of 3 million apprentices by the end of 2020 seems to have disappeared since it was clearly not going to be reached even in the absence of a global pandemic.
However, there is cause for optimism. The penny has dropped with politicians of all persuasions that the expansion of HE will not solve the skills gap and that skills acquisition should have the same status as academic study. Indeed, as the PM implied they are two sides of the same coin. A doctor needs skills to implement medical education and a plumber needs lifelong development as technology changes.
Crucially, the proposals provide access to the student finance system with a four-year entitlement to student loan funding, presumably for maintenance as well as tuition. However, potential applicants will have to wait until at least 2025 to access the funding, after the next general election.
Employers will have an even more enhanced role in the new landscape. They will be designing “almost all” technical courses by 2030, including post-16 level 4 and 5 (sub-degree) qualifications. They will need the aptitude and appetite to do this complex and time consuming professional work in partnership with FE Colleges and other providers. There will be a strategic development fund of £65m to support the development of College Business Centres. Stakeholders will work together locally to produce “new local skills improvement plans” and there will be an enhanced role for Chambers of Commerce, although stopping short of the German and Dutch systems of compulsory membership for businesses. Crucially, the need for enhanced information, advice and guidance is recognised, although not given the extent of financial reboot it needs since the whole system will depend on the quality of advice about options given to learners and their families.
The White Paper tackles the issue of a relatively small number of chronically weak providers. There will be a more direct line of sight between the Secretary of State and individual providers, with the intention being to intervene before rather after they fail and receive huge bailouts. The image of the catcher in the rye comes to mind with the DfE desperately heading weak providers away from the cliff edge. These proposals sit alongside strengthened governance, leadership and management and a raising of the status of FE lecturers through national recognition and recruitment campaigns, together with enhanced development opportunities for staff.
The White Paper has generally been well received in the FE community. People are pleased with the profile generated for FE and the trust placed in it to catalyse a knowledge economy driven by skills procurement and development. There is a feeling that FE’s time has come after years in the wilderness being neither fish nor fowl (school nor university).
However, there are bear traps. How will the demand side respond? The system currently tends to run as a well-signposted motorway which leads from GCSE to A level to university. The complex web of B (orT) and unclassified roads will need to compete head to head with this well-established model to redraw the map, which never, in any case, turns out to be the territory. Incentives will need to be aligned to overcome the inertia of diverting from the motorway, or the new arrangements will need to be compelling enough to provide extra lanes on the motorway. There are green shoots, however. Degree apprenticeships are proving compelling where they offer fee remission and guaranteed employment with blue-chip employers, but they will tend to enhance rather than replace the HE offer. The new arrangements will require many tens or hundreds of thousands of young and adult learners each year to choose a technical qualifications route, employment or an apprenticeship rather than university. To do so they will need to be well advised of available options, be convinced that the technical option is high status and well rewarded and that they will not have burned their bridges in terms of access to university level study throughout life.
The governance proposals are a potential Trojan horse. Who will decide how and when to intervene? Will autonomous colleges which are well-governed and managed but for whatever reason do not fit the blueprint be subject to intervention? All this will need to be clearly defined and transparently operated.
There is a huge challenge for employers, the larger of which are already paying the apprenticeship levy. They will need to absorb a substantial overhead in terms of designing programmes, developing standards and employing the resulting qualified applicants who have put their trust in the new system. Many employers have already embraced these challenges but not all are willing to carry the overhead and some are resistant to change.
This is at least a ten-year project. It should be both/and rather than either/or in terms of level of study in order to create an ecosystem which places England (other arrangements apply in devolved administrations) alongside Germany in terms of the standing of technical skills in a knowledge economy. Failure implies a race to the bottom rather than the top. FE colleges have been handed the baton. Their role supporting their communities in the pandemic has shown they are capable, given investment and capacity, to pick it up and run with it.
David Allen is a Consulting Fellow for Halpin, the home of experts in higher education.