For most other European countries, education is deemed too important to leave to market forces, writes David Corke

Today we published a report showing that excessive competition has led to worse outcomes in 16-19 provision in terms of Ofsted grades, financial health and course choice. 

We used various data sets including performance and participation data and matched this with the individualised learner records, to find out how competition was affecting outcomes, subject choice, finance and quality.

Whilst there was no clear impact on educational outcomes, those areas with high levels of competition saw their scores drop for inspection outcomes, their financial situation worsen and the range of academic and vocational courses available to learners significantly narrow. 

To be clear, we at the Association of Colleges are not anti-competition. We think competition can be a good thing, where it is regulated and working. 

The UK happens to be one of the few nations in Europe that has a highly marketized system, and it shows.

At CEDEFOP (the European Centre for the Development of Vocational Training), the 2018 European Skills Index places the UK 23rd out of 28 countries for matching skills education with the needs of employers and the economy. 

The UK system isn’t working properly. What’s clear is that for most other countries is that education is too important to leave to market forces. 

When governments do not carefully coordinate and oversee provision as part of a whole system, the system becomes fragmented.  This means some providers will offer what is popular, and not too costly, leading to a homogenized local offer with and too little specialist provision that employers are urgently calling for. This is just one of the reasons why the UK has a poor skills match score.

It means sufficiency in our system is poor. Sufficiency is defined by the Department for Education as the extent to which the full range of approved options is available and accessible to all those who qualify for them regardless of geography. 

We must not confuse competition with choice – they are not the same thing. What our report shows is the more competitive a market, the less choice you have. 

It also makes lots of provision unviable, meaning each provider simply cannot attract enough learner numbers. This is especially true of small providers – who happen to be both uneconomic and the worst performers from a quality perspective.

So we need a better approach.

One of the biggest problems is the confusing and complex array of regulators of our system, with no overarching rationale or duty of care for FE, HE and schools. 

For now, we particularly need the FE commissioner and regional schools commissioners to work closely together when deciding if new provision can open up in any given location – especially as we are facing a demographic up-turn in the next few years. 

That’s despite the fact that our research shows that where school sixth forms are dominant, colleges are smaller, and as a result there is a reduced choice of courses available in that area – resulting in there being fewer vocational and technical courses around. 

There are encouraging signs the DfE is listening to the issues related to excessive competition

A whole place-based market approach is required. Even the area-based reviews didn’t take into account school sixth forms and other provider types. If they did, it would be such a complex landscape for them to assess, the reviews would probably still be going on now!

But this can be changed. Again, to be clear we are not calling for a single commissioner, but instead for a duty or requirement on commissioners to ensure that different kinds of provider do not destabilise each other. 

There are encouraging signs the DfE is listening to the issues related to excessive competition.

If they are serious about the leveling up agenda, and skills education post-Covid, policy makers need to make sure this is reflected in the white paper.