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Skills Reform and Levelling up - by Alun Francis and Professor Andy Woodward

Academic researchers at Policy Exchange have been looking at the long-overdue reform of our further and higher education system. We enclose their findings in the attached article and provide a summary of the challenges, anomalies and solutions they have identified:

"The Government’s challenge is to reignite the post-school education and training system as a whole, not just one part of it. It appears to have a rough idea of what it wants the system to be, and which institutions will play a part. But while all institutions have their strengths, they also have weaknesses which could be significant obstacles to change.

We argue for a system which places ultimate power in the hands of learners and employers but also builds capacity and expertise in institutions and ultimately, drives economic renewal and growth. But it must do this while responding to the biggest employment challenge of a generation. This will not be achieved by replacing markets, but by judicious interventions which level the playing field, reset the system, and then let institutions get on with the job.

Gavin Williamson wants to ‘abolish’ Tony Blair’s 50% target for participation in HE and scale back full-time university numbers in favour of alternative, FE led routes. According to Alison Wolf, a member of the Augar Review panel and now an adviser in Downing St, ‘this imbalance looks even harder to justify in the light of regional inequalities’ noting that ‘among young people in their late 20s, over half of the London-schooled went to university’: it’s under 30% in the North East and the South West. It is around 35% in Greater Manchester and across the North West. So in many places it isn’t the other 50% not going to university but rather the other 60-70%.

Augar noted that overall some £8 billion is spent on 1.2 million undergraduates in universities while only £2.3 billion is spent on 2.2 million students at 18 or above in FE. That’s roughly a quarter of the amount on twice the number of students. At a minimum that has to change – which is why a short-term Spending Review has made it harder (either to push the latter figure meaningfully upwards or to bring the former down).

However, it is provision for adults which is going to be the real challenge. This has been the most neglected aspect of the whole skills system for too many years. The impacts of the pandemic will demand that we better meet the challenge of upskilling, reskilling and retraining for people of all ages. But for adults, the trends are running in the opposite direction. Between 2010 and 2018/19 the number of adults in part time higher education fell by 53%. In the same period government spending on adult learning in England (excluding apprenticeships) fell by 47%.

The rediscovery of adult skills as a political priority is therefore long overdue and an important part of any recovery. The Conservatives pledged to spend £3 billion on adult skills at the election and this has now been followed up with the announcement of a lifetime skills guarantee (of at least three years guaranteed government-backed loans) beginning in April 2021."

Beyond this, “the big policy change…is to recommend ‘a stronger technical and vocational education system at sub-degree levels to meet structural skills shortages.”

The authors conclude with these words:

“The shape of local and regional economies and the need to improve them varies significantly across different parts of England. One size does not and cannot fit all. We believe that strong local institutions including colleges and universities are vital building blocks in addressing these regional inequalities.

It is vital that FE colleges have the flexibility and incentives to build partnerships and programmes at a local level – whether with LEPs, government, employers or universities. In turn this leads to a very different conversation about devolution and not one based on control, power or planning a system.”

Read the full article here with a link to the original paper beneath it.

Article by Alun Francis and Professor An
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