Theresa May: FE has been 'overlooked, undervalued and underfunded'

The Prime Minister delivered a speech this morning in response to the much anticipated Augar review on post-18 education. Theresa May spoke passionately about the strong case for much more investment in FE, which in her own words has been “left overlooked, undervalued and underfunded”. FE Week was in attendance and has transcribed her speech in full:

 

“Your report is a ground-breaking piece of work. Because it is one that in compelling detail the challenges confronting all of us who care about post-18 education in all its forms.

It’s a sector that since 2010, the government has consistently supported. We’ve increased the funding flowing to universities, delivered more high-quality apprenticeships, developed brand-new technical qualifications on a par with A-levels.

Yet as we have just heard, there remains much to be done.

The UK boasts some of the finest universities in the world. Universities that we can be proud of and all governments should pledge to support and protect.

But in technical education, we have fallen behind other leading nations. Our further education colleges have the potential to transform lives and grow the economy, but the FE landscape can be confusing to navigate.

Too many students, parents and employers see FE as a second-best option

Too many students, parents and employers see FE as a second-best option and successive governments have failed to give it the support it needs. For nearly 20 years, there has been a relentless focus on getting 50 per cent of young people into HE.

Yet most have lost sight that the original target referred not just to university degrees; it quite rightly covered the whole higher education spectrum, including vocational and technical qualifications.

And that’s why in February last year, I set Philip a clear yet ambitious challenge: to break down the false boundaries between further and higher education.

To look at all the options open to young people and to say how they could be improved and how the state should support students so every school leaver, and indeed every adult learner, can follow the path that is right for them.

With today’s report, Philip and his expert panel have provided a blueprint for how those improvements and changes could be carried out.

As we’ve heard, it makes many recommendations across FE and HE, the proposals on adult and lifelong learning are also important.

Decisions about whether and how to implement these recommendations will not fall to me, but to the next government.

But regardless of the debate to come, there can be no doubt this report represents a major landmark. And that the data, analysis and insights it contains will help us to deliver a post-18 education system that truly works for everyone.

That needs to begin with further education.

Our FE and technical colleges are not just places of learning, they are vital engines of both social mobility and of economic prosperity; training the next generation and helping deliver our modern industrial strategy.

But for too long, FE has been allowed to stagnate with student numbers falling. With MPs, civil servants, and yes, even journalists overwhelmingly coming from university backgrounds, it’s no surprise, perhaps, that attention has drifted away from other post-18 options.

I found it rather telling that despite the wide-ranging remit of the panel, in the years since the review was launched, the debate around it has concentrated almost exclusively on what it will mean for universities.

As the panel argues, this focus on academic routes, at the expense of all others, has left FE overlooked, undervalued and underfunded.

Routes into and through our colleges are confusing and opaque.

There is no equivalent of the clear, straightforward and comprehensive UCAS system.

And this system isn’t just bad for students, it’s bad for our economy. By failing to equip more of our young people with the technical skills they will need to compete in the jobs of the future, we have hampered our ability to compete on the world stage.

Businesses here in the UK regularly tell me they struggle to find workers with the technical qualifications they need, but their rivals overseas have no such problems. As the report says, in Germany, 20 per cent of the workforce holds a higher technical qualification. Here in the UK, just four per cent of 25-year-olds could say the same.

Behind that statistic lies an immeasurable number of opportunities missed and potential wasted both for individuals and employers.

We will have to invest much more in FE, the buildings, the equipment and of course staff

So reinvigorating FE is vital if we are to help all develop the skills they need to get on, and if we are truly to make a success of our modern industrial strategy.

Now as Prime Minister, it is something I have worked hard to do. Let us make sure there is an education and training place for every 16-19-year-old who wants one. We’re rolling out T-levels, new high-quality technical qualifications on par with A-levels. We’ve committed to Institutes of Technology in every major English city and this year announced the first 12. And we are creating more high-quality apprenticeships that deliver for students and employers alike.

But while these reforms have made a real difference, it is clear that if the half of young people who do not go to university are to have the skills they need for the future, then we must go further. It’s not enough to simply say that FE and HE should be seen as equals. As the report argues compellingly, to make that happen we will have to invest much more in FE, the buildings, the equipment and of course staff who are expert in their field.

And making a success of FE is not just about an increased funding, it’s about giving these young people a genuine choice about their education. So more also needs to be done to ensure that further and technical options are every bit as attractive a path for students as more academic options, including by reforming the sector so colleges can thrive.

That will mean more specialisation and collaboration, while also continuing to make sure all young people have access to a college in their area. And reforms to ensure the courses offered by colleges deliver the skills that are needed by local businesses.

And of course, we also need to make sure that only high-quality qualifications are on offer.

That FE students are appropriately supported by government and that the route to FE is as streamlined and clear as possible, just as it is for universities.”

 

FE Week editor Nick Linford got the chance to question the Prime Minister after her speech. Telling her she sounds like she’s in opposition when she describes investment in FE, he asked: “Why hasn’t more happened before now? And why are we waiting for a spending review?”

Here’s how May responded:

 

FE Week also caught up with chair of the post-18 education review Philip Augar. Here’s what he had to say: