We do not provide our young people with enough information – especially not in terms of money – on their pathways through further and higher education, says David Allison
I was interviewed this week by an up-and-coming intern who wanted some thoughts on the way young people enter the workplace. Sarah had just graduated from university and was more than aware of the challenges, but she wanted another perspective and had contacted me via LinkedIn on her own initiative. Clearly an intelligent and proactive individual, it was a really interesting conversation that got me thinking about the many thousands of other young people in her position, and those that will follow in her footsteps in the next few years.
We covered a range of topics in our discussion, from the way in which the jobs market works to the educational choices that are made at an early age and set you on a seemingly fixed course. In every case, when we tried to explore the really simple question of why, it kept coming back to funding. Why do I have to pay for a degree if it’s full-time, but get paid for doing a degree apprenticeship? Why do I get different levels of support if I choose full-time or degree apprenticeships? Why do some institutions offer incentives to students to sign up with them? Why is a university happy for me to take a year out, but an apprenticeship provider concerned?
The commodity appears to be the learner
What this discussion really crystallised in my mind was the way in which education is operating as a market at the moment. But it has become an increasingly complex and opaque market where buyer and seller don’t have equal knowledge of what’s on offer. In fact, in many cases it’s not actually clear who is doing the buying, and who is doing the selling. In the world of HE (and full-time FE), the institutions appear to be doing the selling, and young people are doing the buying, normally funded by significant debt. In reality, the majority of this student debt may not be repaid, and is simply a proxy for direct state grants.
In the world of apprenticeships, the learner doesn’t pay, however their enrolment on a programme allows a provider to be paid, or an employer to access public cash.
In either case, the commodity appears to be the learner. Their presence on a programme unlocks the money, and so they have become the target of significant marketing spend, and as we know from other markets, when cash inducements are made to the buyers, it’s a signal that the market isn’t working transparently or effectively.
Recent headlines about apprenticeship contracts, school funding, and the AEB highlight some of the issues the education sector faces and it’s obvious that there will be tension between the amount of money on offer, and the amount the education system would like to spend.
The current approach appears to have introduced an extra layer, where different funding models operated by different agencies or departments are creating significant distortions. At the end of the day, this complex and ambiguous system will not deliver a sustainable education system that meets the need of young people or industry.
When Sarah told me that after four years at university she now owes over £45,000, I asked her whether she was aware when she started that her debt would be so high, and whether it offered value for money. The line went very quiet.
That’s not to say that HE is not a good choice. Full-time university is an excellent proposition for many young people doing the right course for the right reason. When, however, you hear of universities offering cash incentives thinly disguised as “scholarships” for young people to join we should all be concerned.
Other sectors have recently been held to account by regulators or the courts for a lack of clarity when selling products or services (PPI anyone!?). I’d hate to think that education fell into the same trap.