Responding to Lady Alison Wolf’s report — Heading for the precipice: can further and higher education funding policies be sustained? — Anne Constantine says skills policy is on a roller-coaster ride and calls for the government to resource FE colleges properly to deliver higher level technical skills.

Alison Wolf is a highly respected academic and researcher, whose 2010 report on 14 to 19 vocational qualifications made recommendations that were almost entirely adopted by the Education Secretary at the time.

This led to ‘study programmes’ in FE colleges, with a clear focus on preparing young people well for jobs and careers in the real world.

One of the key measures of colleges now is the destination of their students (are they getting jobs?) rather than just the qualifications they obtain.

Professor Wolf has published a related report, Heading for the Precipice, on adult further and higher education (adult means 19+ and, therefore, covers undergraduate education as well as part-time adults).

Her principal argument is that we cannot afford to continue investing in undergraduate education at £9,000 a-head per year (through loans to students repaid over a long period or not at all), plus maintenance grants in many cases, while starving of funding other routes into jobs for young adults.

Resource FE colleges properly to deliver higher level technical skills and work with employers to increase rapidly the supply of home grown engineers

The average funding for a full-time 16 and 17-year-old in FE is £4,500 and this drops to £3,700 for an 18-year-old.

According to Professor Wolf’s calculations this falls to just over £2,000 for a 19-year-old, whereas a 19-year-old at university is deemed to cost up to £9,000.

Adults in FE have to pay fees but there is no loan provision between 19 and 24.

Professor Wolf asserts that “actual, concrete pay-offs to many degrees are plateauing and more graduates are in ‘non-graduate’ jobs. Meanwhile, at a specific, sectoral level, a sizeable group of vocational qualifications with large positive benefits can be found for those who obtain them”.

“Although Advanced Learning Loans are now being offered to those aged 24+, the sector in which they are being invited to study is severely under-resourced compared to HE,” she adds.

Professor Wolf maintains that the current situation is financially unsustainable and is deeply inegalitarian in its allocation of resources.

“In post-19 education, we are producing vanishingly small numbers of higher technician level qualifications, while massively increasing the output of generalist bachelors degrees and low-level vocational qualifications,” she says.

“We are doing so because of the financial incentives and administrative structures that governments themselves have created, not because of labour market demand, and the imbalance looks set to worsen yet further.”

The biggest skills shortages in the UK, affecting our productivity and economic competitiveness, are for technicians and associate professionals, which is why employers all too often are recruiting abroad for engineers and nurses.

The solution to the former is to resource FE colleges properly to deliver higher level technical skills and work with employers to increase rapidly the supply of home grown engineers.

And to the second, to reverse the decision to make nursing a graduate only profession and incentivize young people and the NHS to take a vocational route into nursing through colleges and high quality apprenticeships.

Skills policy in the UK has been a roller-coaster ride through successive governments’ constantly changing policies.

That roller-coaster ride looks to become ever more frightening for the country unless Ministers start seeing FE as the valuable asset it is and treat it as dependable not expendable.