What’s New in the Government White Paper on Skills? by Andy Green

The much-delayed Government White Paper on skills (‘Skills for Jobs: Lifelong Learning for Opportunities and Growth’), published last Thursday, holds few surprises; it has already been widely trailed in Government announcements and reforms over the past year. What is most notable, though – and very welcome – is its unusually strong statements about the centrality Further Education Colleges to the Government’s skills agenda in post-Brexit Britain, arguably a distinctive contribution from the current Secretary of State for Education.

In his strategic speech to the Social Market Foundation in June last year, Gavin Williamson positioned himself as the champion of Further Education and of the ‘forgotten 50 percent’ who do not go to university. He promised to be the Secretary of State who would finally ensure that technical education in Britain achieved the prominence and status it deserved.

His rationale is widely shared: that ‘building back’ after the pandemic will require a sustained focus on addressing the shortages in higher technical skills which have been growing in recent years and will be amplified by Brexit. FE colleges can be – and should be – central to this endeavour, he says, and this requires a re-balancing of priorities regarding provision in further and higher education.

In support of the argument, he noted that there is a significant problem with graduate under-employment and that many students undertaking bachelor degrees might have better job prospects following higher technical courses, whose graduates, five years on, earn more on average than those from bachelor degree courses, according to recent research. This argument, and the argument for re-balancing further and higher education more generally, has been strongly promoted by LLAKES over the past five years, including in our 2019 submission to the HoC Education Committee Inquiry into Adult Skills and Lifelong Learning, in Geoff Mason’s recent research paper for LLAKES and in my own recent article in Academia. Indeed, in making his case, Williamson cites LLAKES findings on the relatively high levels of graduate under-employment in Britain and on the singular absence in England of intergenerational improvement in core skills.

Williamson’s bold promises include: improving core skills provision (extended to digital skills); increasing participation on high quality technical courses in colleges (at levels 4 and 5) to meet the demand for higher technical skills; and expanding participation in employer-led apprenticeships to create the ‘world class, German style apprenticeship system’ which he says is fundamental for social mobility. The question is how far the policies outlined in the White Paper can deliver on these desirable outcomes.

The White Paper brings together a range of existing policies, announced during the course of last year, with a number of new initiatives, to boost high quality, employer-led technical education. The ‘Lifetime Skills Guarantee’, first announced by the PM in September last year, includes a welcome commitment to giving free access to adults to general and technical courses for first-time level 3 qualifications, with a focus on areas in most demand by employers. Traditional courses are to be supplemented by 12-16 week ‘skills bootcamps’ to boost the employability of adults in key high demand sectors. These proposals are supported by the £375 m. pa promised by the Chancellor at the last spending review, including £95m for the new adult level 3 offer, and £43m to expand the ‘bootcamps’.

The White Paper also commits to expanding the new Institutes of Technology (collaborations between FE, HE and employers) from the existing 12 to 20 by the end of this parliament, and to the rolling out of Local Skills Improvement Plans through trailblazers involving college/employer collaborations led by chambers of commerce. The latter build on the work of the Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) and their skills advisory panels and are now supported through grants from Strategic Development Fund and informed by labour market intelligence from the recently formed Skills and Productivity Board. The objective is to support colleges in delivering on local skills priorities.

The new policies announced in the White Paper include some new measures for colleges to help reduce funding bureaucracy and improve governance, and to enhance the training, recruitment and professional development of college lecturers. Funding will also be available for the development of college business services which will support college links to local businesses and the development of Local Improvement Plans. The most ambitious of the new announcements is the promised ‘Lifelong Learning Entitlement’ to be rolled out after 2025, which seems to be based on the earlier proposals from the Liberal Democrats and Tom Schuller et al., as published by the LLAKES Centre. This will provide post-18 adults with flexible access to student loans to cover four years of full-time learning on recognised courses, at any point in their adult lives, and with enhanced opportunities for credit transfer. The policy is flagged as requiring major changes to higher education funding and is subject to further consultation. As with the other new announcements, the White Paper is rather short on details.

Key questions must be asked on whether the announcements include the necessary additional funding for FE and whether the measures proposed do indeed take us further towards achieving a ‘world class’ technical education and training system.

The promises on funding are far from re-assuring. Adult and further education have suffered a very large drop in funding over the past eight years, due to declining enrolments and reductions in core funding per full-time student. This amounted to a 36 percent decline in real terms between 2012 and 2018 (23 percent for FE colleges). Over 100 FE colleges have found themselves in financial difficulties as a result, according the National Audit Office. Yet, the White Paper does little to restore former levels of funding.

There is a commitment to reverse the cut (to £3500 pa per full-time student) in core funding for 18-year olds, as recommended by the Augar review. However, no promises have been made on improving the overall baseline funding per student for all those in FE aged 16 and over.  Universities still receive on average over £10 000 pa for each full-time undergraduate student (typically £9250 from fees and £1100 from Government teaching grants). This is 2.5 times more than the core funding per full-time student in FE colleges (around £4000 pa now). Nor will the proposed ‘Lifetime Learning Entitlement’ necessarily have much effect on the teaching resource gap between FE and HE, so long as institutions are allowed to set their own course fees, since universities will still be able to charge higher fees than colleges if this is left to the market. Only £200 m. in capital funding for the improvement of colleges estates and equipment has been promised for the current year, with little real terms increase over the next five. This is well below the £1 bn per year called for by Augar and considerably less than the £1 bn colleges received in 2010. No announcements have been made about raising the pay of college lecturers which lags that of school teachers by some 17 percent on average. With these limited additional resources there will be no re-balancing of funding between further and higher education and it is hard to see how the FE sector will be able to deliver on the ambitious targets set by the White Paper for improving course offer and quality, let alone for winning reputational parity for technical education. 

Despite the reforms that followed the Sainsbury Review, and even with the further improvements promised in the White Paper for expanding high quality, employer led, higher technical courses, the achievement of a ‘world class’ German style technical education system still seems a long way off. LLAKES comparative research on upper secondary education and training suggests that systems which are relatively successful in increasing skills levels and reducing skills inequalities have three characteristics in common: a) a high proportion of the cohort completing long-cycle ISCED Level 3 qualifications; b) a high proportion of students undertaking work-based learning (in systems where technical tracks are consistently of high quality and enjoy relative ‘parity of esteem’ with ‘academic courses’); and c) the mandatory learning and assessment of core skills across all tracks.

The system in England is gradually improving on the last of these. However, it has a long way to go before reaching the world class standards on the other criteria. After recent declines in participation, only 4 percent of the 16-18 cohort undertake apprenticeships, compared with over 30 percent in Austria, Germany and Switzerland. Only around half of the apprentices in England graduate with Level 3 apprentice qualifications, the remainder qualifying at only intermediate levels from programmes that may be as short as one year. Germany’s apprentices typically graduate at ISCED Level 3 from three years of apprentice training. New measures to establish employer-led standards for technical courses at Level 3 and above may enhance the labour market relevance of technical qualifications but are not guaranteed to achieve the high skills standards typical in Germany and other countries with Dual Systems. In these countries, skills standards are ensured by joint negotiation between the social partners, with the trade unions playing a key role in maintaining skills levels through negotiating sectoral agreements on qualifications and pay levels for different occupations. Such social partnership mechanisms have disappeared in England and the White Paper is not seeking to revive them.

Last, but not least, there is the fragmentation and lack of transparency in the English system with its 12 000 plus qualifications (at Level 3 and below), which are often awarded by private or semi-private bodies, and delivered by multiple types of provider (including school sixth forms, Sixth Form Colleges, FE Colleges, and some 1250 Independent Training Providers (ITPs). The White paper promises to reduce the number of such qualifications, although it is hard to see how far this can go with so many independent awarding bodies (Germany has around 300 qualifications all regulated by the central, tripartite BIBB organisation with individual awards certified by the chambers of commerce). The proposals do nothing, however, to deal with the fragmentation of institutional provision, despite acknowledging the uneven standards across the system, and the comparatively poor performance of the ITP sector.  

Achieving higher normative standards in technical provision, with corresponding reputational parity for the FE sector, still looks a sadly distant prospect.