On the back of the Prime Minister’s announcement to create a Lifetime Skills Guarantee, Cameron Wall considers what this tells us about the Government’s strategic plans for Further Education and how the sector could respond.
A cornerstone of the Prime Minister’s ‘levelling-up’ agenda, has been one of bold commitments on further education and skills. Covid and rising unemployment is putting even more pressure on Number 10 to ensure the UK’s workforce is equipped with the skills our economy needs to recover.
In his speech on Tuesday, the Prime Minister set out more detail on the government’s plans, signalling how the Government intends to grapple with this inevitable unemployment crisis and begin to fulfil the ‘levelling up’ promises.
The PM set out how he plans to end a “bogus distinction between FE and HE”, introducing a series of changes aimed at making practical study more attractive
Front and centre was his announcement to create a new ‘Lifetime Skills Guarantee’ offering free Level 3 courses to adults without equivalent qualifications. This will be paid for from the National Skills Fund, announced in the Conservative election manifesto. To date there has been no other real detail about how the fund will work or what it will cover. Eligible courses will be announced in due course, meaning there is still time for providers to ensure that their courses are covered while also making sure that any further action on the National Skills Fund is aligned with their offer.
Reforms to the apprenticeship system will enable businesses to use unspent levy funds to support apprentices within non-levy paying SMEs, and apprenticeships will become “portable”, so they can easily be moved between companies. This has long been called for by many in the sector, but questions still remain about whether this will be sufficient to fully fund non-levy apprenticeships.
The PM also committed to taking forward a key recommendation on further education from the Augar Review, opening up the main student finance mechanism to students undertaking higher technical qualifications. This is a positive step, but without adequate maintenance support, potential learners may question how they can support themselves to study such a course without an income.
Building on this, the Lifetime Skills Guarantee will over time progress into a system where all students can access a lifelong loan entitlement to four years of post-18 education, as part of cementing efforts to bridge the gap between Higher and Further Education. This ambition sits at the heart of the Government’s education agenda.
Reform has long been on the agenda, and a Further Education system that meets the economy’s skills needs has been a key aspiration for governments going back over decades.
The reforms announced by the Prime Minister cast some light on the potential foundations of the imminent Further Education White Paper which is expected to begin that process of better aligning Further and Higher Education and ensure the value of Further Education is recognised by learners and employers. However, a lot more needs to happen to deliver the Education Secretary’s vision to create a “world-class, German-style further education system”, which would “level up skills and opportunities” and “give FE the investment it deserves”.
Covid has, of course, posed some significant short-term challenges for the Further Education sector, but the White Paper must also settle a number of long-term questions regarding the future of Further Education. Whilst there is agreement the system needs reform, there is a lack of consensus over what this reform looks like.
Clearly Number 10 and the Department for Education are keen to show they are responding to challenges on the horizon with bursts of good news. But, as officials hash out the details of reforms behind the scenes, there is now a clear opportunity to influence what Further Education reform looks like on the ground, and government will be no doubt be looking to the sector for guidance.
Foremost is the question of, in practice, how much the Education Secretary’s vision for a German-style Further Education system actually borrows from Germany. In Williamson’s speech announcing the White Paper, he only made two references to Germany. Instead his tone focused on the value that the UK attaches to Further Education, and how it falls far short of our European neighbour.
Like Germany, Williamson wants our Further Education system to put employers at its heart. He sees colleges acting as hubs within regions, linking vocational training with employers and helping meet the skills needs of the local economy. Now is the time for providers who hold strong local business links and play a role in supporting the local skills needs to make a case to government for regional control. Otherwise, the question government will be asking is, can their desired vision to bridge the gap between Higher and Further Education be achieved without national, centralised oversight?
It is also still to be seen whether the Further Education White Paper will come alongside the long-awaited review of the Apprenticeship Levy, first announced by then Chancellor Philip Hammond in 2018. This also reappeared in the Conservative’s election manifesto, which promised to improve the workings of the levy.
Whilst concerns that expensive apprenticeships are sapping up levy funds have been temporarily supressed by the pandemic, this issue will undoubtedly return in the long-term. Providers should use this opportunity to push for system changes they want to see which have been exposed by how the levy has been used to date. In any case, training providers and employers drawing on these funds will need to justify the contribution to the economy their programmes deliver.
Whilst Williamson may have a clear vision in his head, officials at the Department for Education – under the watchful eye of Number 10 – will now be in listening mode to help flesh out the details of Further Education reform as we approach the White Paper’s launch – and as they begin implementing policy reform on the ground.
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