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Reversing decades of neglect: government-commissioned report on upskilling and reskilling adults in the workforce

Dr Philip Augar (below right), chair of the Post-18 Education and Funding Review Panel, was commissioned by the May government in February 2018 to improve the availability of technical and vocational education by providing alternatives to university education.

Dr Augar opens his report by pointing out that the review is the first since the Robbins report in 1963 to consider both parts of tertiary education together:

Prime Minister Harold Wilson – in the ‘60s and ‘70s – supported tertiary education by supporting the setting up of the Open University, channelling funds into local-authority run colleges of education and creating extra places in universities, polytechnics and technical colleges.

Since then, Augar points out, no government of any persuasion has considered further education to be a priority.

The consequence has been decades of neglect and a loss of status and prestige amongst learners, employers and the public at large.

He sees the review as a unique opportunity to deliver an objective assessment of the current situation, to articulate the country’s future needs from tertiary Introduction education, and to propose remedies that are practical and realistic in addressing the issues it has identified:

“It is an opportunity to consider the roles both should play in meeting the country’s social and economic needs, how they fit together, how they should be funded and whether they are delivering value for students and taxpayers”.

The review asks whether the changing pattern of public subsidy is strategically desirable

It points out that the Institute for Fiscal Studies estimates that the public subsidy amounts to about £30,000 per student for those studying Arts and Humanities and as much as £37,000 for those taking courses in the Creative Arts. The equivalent is £28,000 for Engineering students and £24,000 for those studying Maths and Computer Science.

And Figure 3.11 (based on HMRC data) also shows that the government’s investment in providing Engineering degrees has fallen by about £9,000 per student since 2011, but risen by more than £6,000 for Creative Arts degrees – over 30% more per student for Creative Arts than it does for Engineering.

After describing post-18 (or ‘tertiary’) education in England as a story of both care and neglect, depending on whether students are amongst the 50% of young people who participate in higher education (HE) or the rest, Philip Augar continues:

“The panel believes that this disparity simply has to be addressed. Doing so is a matter of fairness and equity and is likely to bring considerable social and economic benefits to individuals and the country at large.”

In a changing labour market it is vitally important to offer upskilling and reskilling to older adults in the workforce with basic or intermediate skills and an FT editorial adds a reference to the “knock-on effects on productivity, wage growth and social harmony”.

At present the decline in vocational education is widespread and protracted. Most of the neglected 50% of the 18-30-year-old population who do not go to university, and older non-graduates are at work and, if they are educated at all after the age of 18, are educated mainly in further education colleges where teachers are paid on average less than their counterparts in schools:

“Funding levels are inadequate to cover essential maintenance or to provide modern facilities, and funding flows are complex to navigate. Not surprisingly, the sector is demoralised, has little to spend on mission groups and is consequently under-reported in the media and under-represented in Westminster”.

The FT editorial board welcomes the recommendation to expand the tuition fee loan system to all adults made by Augar, whom they describe as a businessman and historian.

It points out that increasing numbers are attending university, in sharp contrast to the UK’s vocational education system, which has seen funding cut by 45% in real terms since 2010 and agrees:

  • The Treasury should make up the funding shortfall in grants for science and technology courses, which receive less taxpayer funding despite wider benefits and that
  • more resources will be needed to fund opportunities for lifelong learning and training.

Its conclusion: “Creating a system in which all contribute and all benefit is essential. would be good both for the economy and to promote a fairer society . . . with knock-on effects on productivity, wage growth and social harmony”.

 

 

 

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