What would you tell the leaders of the major political parties about needed policy changes in further education? The Collab Group has a few answers, says Shelagh Legrave  

Recent government industrial strategies have identified skills as a key driver to improve productivity in the UK. Low-skilled workers, according to the OECD, place the country in the third quartile of nations, well behind major industrial nations. 

FE colleges are central to the development of technical, professional and academic skills. More than 70 per cent of young people study at a college before progressing into apprenticeships, university or employment.

Yet according to the Association of Colleges there has been a 30 per cent real-terms cut in the funding for post-16 education since 2010.  The number of adults taking training has dropped from 46 per cent in 2001 to 37 per cent in 2019.  At the same time there are significant skills shortages in key industries, particularly related to science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM).

Dr Philip Augar, commissioned by the government last year to look at post-18 education, identified that £8 billion was spent on 1.2 million undergraduates each year while only £2.2 billion was set aside to fund 2.2 million adults to upskill and retrain.

Any future government should invest significantly in post-16 education. It would see a return in terms of productivity through allowing anyone, whatever age, to achieve their first level 3 qualification free. It should also incentivise those who want to achieve a level 4 and 5 higher national diploma or certificate, and start addressing the skills gap that is limiting business growth.

The apprentice system is over-complicated and challenging

The FE funding system is incredibly complicated and expensive to oversee.  A future government should simplify the system, releasing more funding for frontline educational delivery.

Skills in literacy and numeracy are clearly vital for all employees. In many areas of the country fewer than 50 per cent of children achieve English and maths at grade 4 (previously grade C) at GCSE.  Since 2015 FE colleges have been required to ensure all young people without these qualifications retake them until they get the right grade. Huge numbers are now being retaught English and maths, but with no additional funding to cover the cost.  A future government should both review the policy on retaking these GCSEs and fund the cost of delivery.

As Collab Group has said in its statement this week on apprenticeships, the apprentice system is over-complicated and challenging for employers and providers. The apprentice levy has encouraged some businesses to take on apprentices, but more should be encouraged to use their levy rather than treat it as a tax. There are so many opportunities for apprentices to progress through to a higher apprenticeship and then a degree.  However, there needs to be better initial advice and guidance in schools to encourage young people to pursue this route into employment.

The investment in skills can be a gamechanger for the economy if properly funded.  Colleges are at the heart of their local communities, delivering high-quality professional, technical and academic qualifications for young people and adults – although Brexit threatens staff numbers at all levels.

Our new government should recognise what we have created in colleges and unleash the sector’s power. Doing more with less has perhaps driven rationalisation, but if the age of austerity is truly over, as both of the main parties seem to be saying, then new spending in further education will be crucial to improve social mobility and close the opportunity gap.  

But money alone will not be enough. The sector needs a strong vision to tie together all the disparate threads of policy, to simplify funding and regulation, and to bring all stakeholders together with a common purpose. We need to articulate a vision of further education that places colleges at the heart of communities, our economy and society—to do so will require a unified response.

This piece is part of a series of Collab Group election 2019 opinion pieces