If the long-anticipated White Paper doesn’t recognise the needs of 2021, then it will fail like so many initiatives before it, write Mark Dawe and Tim Blackman

We have both spent our careers working in education and training – from primary schools to PhD researchers – and there is no doubt that the Covid crisis is the biggest shock to education we have ever seen.  

Both our organisations are also leading providers of high-quality courses that use technology to enable flexibility for learners.

Because of Covid, never has this flexibility been more important.

So with the FE White Paper due any day, we have agreed a seven-point checklist to measure its suitability for the 21st century world. 

1. A joined-up tertiary education system

We are in an age of converging technologies, rapid change and increasingly hybrid job roles. 

It is an age when everyone needs to keep learning but often on a climbing frame rather than a ladder, mixing knowledge, skills and levels. 

The old world of separate further and higher education sectors is for the last century, not this one. 

We need to create a whole system of seamless tertiary education that supports lifelong learning, with common qualification frameworks, standards and funding.

2. Empower the learner

We are more and more used to shopping online and using data to inform our purchasing decisions. 

Now is the opportunity to put the system in the hands of the informed learner, whether choosing an apprenticeship, a degree, a technical qualification or short courses. 

Selection should be fair and transparent, and for many courses we need far less selection. Many entry requirements are narrow, traditional and ignore the capability of students especially when not demonstrated by formal qualifications. 

A lifelong funding or credit entitlement would revolutionise the funding and support system, introducing flexible fee and maintenance support over a working lifetime. 

Public policy priorities such as digital literacy should be designed into the system using funding conditions and incentives.

3. Unbundle qualifications

Full qualifications are important when necessary for occupational competency or to demonstrate academic achievement, but how someone gets there and the flexibility of options should not be rigid and time-bound. 

That is not how society and the economy work any more. 

Instead, learners should be able to build a collection of units over time, each recognised in their own right but contributing towards to an overarching “fully qualified” status, in which constant change means that “fully qualified” will be seen as a moving end-point. 

Every year there will be new units, as technology changes the way roles are defined and the skills that are needed. Rather than once-and-for-all training and education, the norm should be to top-up, receive formal recognition and then progress.

4. Progression and articulation

Along with unitisation we need clear progression pathways through levels of learning, which allow learners to fluidly mix levels and skills. 

Occupational standards are helpful frameworks but cannot become straightjackets, artificially creating silos of learning that are detached from the reality of how job content changes and new types of job continually emerge. 

It must be possible to mix and match units relevant to what a learner or job needs. 

5. Hard skills

We are in the human age, when human skills – what cannot be done by a machine – are more important than ever. 

It is time to rename soft skills as hard skills: these are the ability to work in a diverse team, to communicate empathetically, to solve complex problems and above all learnability, which is the ability to find out, evaluate, innovate and improve. 

Time and again these skills are sacrificed in the pursuit of exhaustive definitions of industry-specific technical content packaged in a qualification that quickly dates. 

We’ve got this the wrong way around: human skills should be the core units of every programme at every level. They are what make people employable and mobile in a dynamic labour market.

6. Diversity as a resource

Everyone is different and a team full of difference is a highly functioning team. Diversity prevents narrow framing of problems, puts more possible solutions on the table, and avoids groupthink. 

Education can support diversity by enabling learners to study different topics that create opportunities for innovation and learn how to work with other specialisms towards a common goal. 

7. Online and upwards

Mainstream education and training are no longer just about buildings, classrooms, lecture theatres or workshops. 

Any policy that favours these over digital technology risks making the publicly-funded system a dinosaur in a digital world. 

Of course, there are challenges such as digital poverty to overcome, and blended approaches will always be in the mix.We are not advocating every piece of learning going fully online. But the OU is already using augmented and virtual reality to make practical learning “real” and enabling its students to undertake lab experiments operating equipment remotely. 

This transformation will be dramatic, far beyond current virtual learning environments.

 

If the White Paper can demonstrate that it sets us on this path, we welcome it wholeheartedly. 

If it does not, then it will join the failed promise of so many other education and training policy papers.

This is not about being brave or taking risks. It is about how our world is changing and how education and training need to smell the coffee.