LLAKES research featured in Times Higher Education


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LLAKES Research Paper 66:

Higher Education, Initial Vocational Education and Training and Continuing Education and Training: Where Should the Balance Lie?

by Geoff Mason

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This paper reviews evidence on two serious imbalances in the UK education and training system:

  1. The heavy bias in public spending on initial education and training (for 18-24 year olds) towards higher education at the expense of further education and vocational education and training.
  2. The very weak government support for continuing education and training (for adults aged 25-plus) compared to that provided for initial education and training for new entrants to the workforce.

The effects of these imbalances are compounded by a marked reluctance by many employers to invest in work-based training, especially long-duration apprenticeship training.

Taken together these shortcomings restrict development of intermediate skills and upgrading of adult workers’ skills and thus contribute to poor productivity performance in many workplaces. They also reduce the wider social and economic benefits which arise from continuing adult learning, whether employment-related or community-related, and worsen social and inter-generational equity.

The first imbalance between initial higher education and initial further education and vocational education and training is now well understood and was recently the subject of a major government enquiry (Augar, 2019). However, the second imbalance between initial education and training and continuing education and training has received little attention from policy-makers.

In a concluding policy section, this paper discusses ways in which both major imbalances in public spending on education and training could be reduced by

  • diversifying higher education entry routes away from the dominant model of 18 year olds entering full-time Bachelor degree courses, to be achieved in part by
  • shifting the weight of course fees away from intermediate-level vocational qualifications — which overlap in part (at RQF Levels 4-5) with the first two years of Bachelor (First) degree level study —  and towards the later stages of Bachelor degree and Higher degree studies (Level 6 and above)
  • ensuring free access to continuing education and training for learners of all ages, whether in employment or not

Specifically, the paper questions current policy emphasis on attempting to encourage adult participation in intermediate-level vocational courses by extending student loan facilities available at Level 6 to Levels 4-5. It notes convincing evidence that adult learner loans at Levels 4-5 have failed to entice borrowers on anywhere near the scale of loans taken out by students enrolling directly for Level 6 qualifications. It therefore argues for tuition fees to be abolished for all FE courses up to Level 5 and for community learning courses and other courses which do not necessarily lead to formal qualifications.

This approach would aim to encourage:

  1. more young people to study for intermediate-level vocational qualifications and then enter employment, while maintaining options for many of them to go on later to study for Bachelor degrees if the labour market incentives to do so remain strong
  2. more adults aged 25-plus, whether in or out of employment, to take up new learning opportunities in work-related and/or general interest areas.

The paper then considers how well the Apprenticeship Levy system is working to stimulate increased employer spending on long-duration training for employees. It concludes that present concerns about the initial post-Levy drop in apprenticeship start numbers are misguided. Indeed, there is a very strong case for prioritising improvements in quality over quantity at this stage in the reform of apprenticeship training.

The reasons for this include pressing needs to reinvest in FE college resources after years of neglect and to build up the number of capable training providers and end-point assessment organisations within the apprenticeship system. Steps also need to be taken to reduce diversion of Apprenticeship Levy funds towards training for existing well-qualified employees at the expense of newly-recruited lower-qualified employees.

Finally, the paper considers options for short-duration continuing education and training for adults of all ages to be encouraged without undermining current efforts to reform and improve apprenticeship training.