Higher education in England is not delivering what the country needs, the education secretary Gavin Williamson said today as he vowed to increase the numbers on technical courses and “stand for the forgotten 50%”.
Gavin Williamson has today delivered an online speech in which he announced plans for a “world-class, German-style” post-16 education system in England, which will be published in a white paper this autumn.
The white paper will form part of this government’s response to the Augur report, which was published last year by Theresa May’s administration. The review of post-16 education in England led by Dr Phillip Augar recommended root-and-branch reform of higher and further education and an increase in spending on technical and vocational qualifications.
‘Inbuilt snobbishness’ about higher education
The education secretary today lamented the fall in adult learners in further education and part-time undergraduates and the decline of higher technical qualifications and foundation degrees.
“It’s clear that there are limits to what can be achieved by sending ever more people to university, which is not always what the individual or our nation needs,” Mr Williamson said.
“I don’t accept this absurd mantra that if you are not part of the 50% of the young people who go to university that you’ve somehow come up short. You have become one of the forgotten 50% who choose another path.”
Mr Williamson deplored what he saw as “inbuilt snobbishness about higher [education] being somehow better than further [education]”.
He said employers complain “that too often, graduates don’t have the skills they need, whether that’s practical know-how or basic numeracy and literacy”. The speech also mentioned several reports which suggest that as many as a third of graduates are in non-graduate jobs; evidence, Mr Williamson said, that “a significant proportion of graduates fail to gain much advantage from going to university at all”.
The education secretary said the country instead needed more people to take technical and higher technical qualifications. “Let’s not pretend these qualifications are in any way inferior to a degree,” he added.
After criticising Tony Blair’s target to boost participation in higher education to 50% of young people, Mr Williamson said the government’s mantra for now on was “Further Education, Further Education, Further Education”. Labour’s target announced in 1999 to increase post-18 participation in higher education was not, however, expressly aimed at degrees; Mr Blair’s target at the time included students experiencing higher education on HND and HNC courses.
Skilled trade and professional occupations, in sectors such as manufacturing and construction, report some of the highest skills shortages. Many of these occupations require intermediate or higher technical qualifications – precisely the things that we are not teaching
– Gavin Williamson
Universities can be ‘part of the solution’
Gavin Williamson has spoken before on his desire to expand FE and he took on specific ministerial responsibility for the sector when he was appointed education secretary in July 2019.
The latest annual report on education spending in England by the Institute for Fiscal Studies found that between 2010–11 and 2018–19, spending per student in 16–18 FE colleges fell by 12% in real terms. Total spending on classroom-based adult education (excluding apprenticeships) has fallen by nearly two-thirds since 2003–04. This combines cuts of 32% up to 2009–10 and 47% between 2009–10 and 2018–19. Learner numbers fell from 4.4 million in 2004–05 to 1.5 million in 2017–18.
The government recently announced several large funds to boost the sector and young people. The schemes include the £2 billion ‘kickstart scheme’ to support youth employment; the £2.5 billion National Skills Fund; a £111m fund to expand traineeships; a £101m fund to high-value Level 2 and Level 3 courses; cash bonuses for companies hiring apprentices before January 2021, and a £200m capital funding programme for colleges.
“Only 10% of all adults aged 18-65 hold a Higher Technical Qualification as their highest qualification. This compares to around 20% of adults in Germany and as much as 34% in Canada,” Mr Williamson said.
“Skilled trade and professional occupations, in sectors such as manufacturing and construction, report some of the highest skills shortages. Many of these occupations require intermediate or higher technical qualifications – precisely the things that we are not teaching.”
The minister concluded with a conciliatory message for universities, which could, he said, “be an important part of the solution, if they are willing to significantly step up their provision of higher technical qualifications”.
Over 40% of courses currently offered by universities have a technical, professional or vocational focus, and are equipping people for vital careers in the public sector such as nursing, to meeting the skills needs of growing industries from robotics to green energy
– Alistair Jarvis, Universities UK
The speech today received a mixed response.
The University and College Union (UCU) said further education desperately needed funding because of a “decade of cuts under Conservative governments”, but that increased investment “should not be at the expense of higher education”. It described the scrapping of the 50% target as “rhetoric to secure a headline”.
Responding to Gavin Williamson, UCU general secretary Jo Grady said: “Further education is in dire need of funding, but that is because the Conservative governments of the last decade have decimated it. Hearing Gavin Williamson lament the lack of funding for colleges is as astonishing as it was to hear universities minister Michelle Donelan complain last week about record student debt levels on the back of £9,250 annual tuition fees introduced by the Conservatives.”
“The government should be encouraging people to attend all forms of education, not picking artificial winners in a market it has created, nor denigrating university education at a time when the sector desperately needs support,” Dr Grady added.
The chief executive of the Association of Colleges, David Hughes, who represents most of the institutions that are expected to benefit from the Tory spending pledges, said: “For too long, we’ve been fixated on a target set in a different era, by a different leader, when the needs of the country were vastly different. The 50% target felt right then and has now been achieved. It’s time to move on to a more ambitious target, one which recognises that the world has changed and the needs of the country and of its citizens have changed.”
“The FE white paper with the investment to make up for a decade of neglect has the potential to be a turning point for colleges, if it is bold and ambitious. It should build on what already works well, whilst creating a system that is truly committed to lifelong learning, allowing people to be educated, trained and re-trained at any stage of their lives,” he continued.
Alistair Jarvis, chief executive of Universities UK, said: “To suggest there is an arbitrary maximum number of people who should be able to pursue higher education is denying aspiration – what is important is that every student has the choice to follow the path which is right for them to best fulfil their potential.”
Mr Jarvis said it was “a mistake to view post-18 education as a binary choice between supporting either higher education or further education”.
“Both universities and colleges have important and mutually supporting roles to meet skills needs in the post-Covid-19 economic recovery. The benefits of universities and colleges are felt in local communities across the UK, increasing social mobility, creating jobs and supporting local businesses,” he continued.
“Over 40% of courses currently offered by universities have a technical, professional or vocational focus, and are equipping people for vital careers in the public sector such as nursing, to meeting the skills needs of growing industries from robotics to green energy. A university degree enhances an individual’s job prospects and boosts future salary by an average of £9,000 a year.”
Dr Greg Walker, chief executive of MillionPlus, said his members “strongly supports” the aspiration for the UK to be the best in the world for higher technical education, but disliked the “rhetoric” which “appears to see HE and FE as alternatives”.
Modern universities themselves are some of the highest quality providers of higher technical education – they partner closely with employers to ensure that our programmes are industry-relevant and produce qualified people with the skills and knowledge needed in the workplace. These universities are eager to provide ever more programmes for students opting for this type of study,” he continued.
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