The next government should regulate and fund colleges, universities and training providers through a new “one tertiary system”, the Association of Colleges has said.
The membership body made the call in a new report out today called “Opportunity England”, which makes over 20 other policy recommendations to create a “national post-16 education and skills strategy” after the next general election.
Among the proposals is a demand for apprenticeships to only be taken by new job starters, a pause of the proposed axing of level 3 courses that compete with T Levels, and increased funding rates so FE providers can match the new starting salary of £30,000 a year for school-teachers.
Here are the key recommendations from the report.
‘One tertiary system’
Colleges, universities and other learning organisations “need to be regulated and funded together as one tertiary system”, the report said.
According to the AoC, separate regulation, funding, data and success measures make it “hard for people and employers to understand and navigate the learning and skills they need and want”.
Learning organisations are in turn “forced to compete for scarce resources, resulting in a reduced breadth of offer, efficiency and quality of provision”.
The AoC’s report doesn’t go into detail about how this new system would work in practice, or which regulator should run it.
Rather, it states the new system would need to be developed “in partnership with learning organisations and across a range of other institutions including local government, employer groups, unions and community organisations”.
Only allow apprenticeships for new job starters
The AoC said the overall apprenticeship programme “is not working” because of the government’s refusal to set any priorities for how the levy is used by employers.
This “failure” has led to “unwanted and major shifts, with higher-level apprenticeships for existing employees in big companies growing at the expense of opportunities for young people and new labour market entrants where numbers have reduced”.
Apprenticeships need to be focused on new job starters – which would be a return to the recommendations of the 2012 Richard review, the AoC said.
The programmes should be “clearly targeted at and promoted” to those who are new to a job or role that requires sustained or substantial training.
Training and accreditation of existing workers should be “delivered separately”, as should provision aimed primarily at entry-level jobs, the AoC’s report said.
The association also called for a review of the levy, to look at where the money is currently spent, what forecasts suggest about future spending, whether there are options to pool employer contributions and whether it will be necessary to increase the levy rate from 0.5 per cent to 1 per cent.
Lifelong loan entitlement should include grants
The AoC said that since 2004 participation numbers in government-funded learning have almost halved with now only one in three adults self-reporting any participation in learning – the lowest level in 22 years.
To address this, the current government is introducing the lifelong loan entitlement in 2025, which will provide individuals with a loan entitlement to the equivalent of four years of post-18 education to use over their lifetime.
The AoC said that as well as loans, this entitlement should make grants available to “ensure wider access” to the scheme.
In addition, the association said a “universal entitlement” to a first full level 3 qualification, building on the “Lifetime Skills Guarantee” introduced in 2020, should be implemented but with a wider range of courses on offer and with maintenance support.
Poor staff pay must be addressed
There is a crisis in college workforce recruitment and retention, driven largely by poor pay, the AoC said.
The average pay for teaching staff in colleges sits around £8,000 a year below that of their colleagues in schools.
According to the AoC, funding rates need to be increased for colleges to at least be able to match the new starting salary of £30,000 a year for teaching staff in schools.
There is also a big pay gap between college lecturers and the industries they train people for.
The AoC wants the next government to invest in a “cadre of sector experts” to be employed by colleges in priority sectors, paid closer to industry levels, to “stimulate demand, engage with employers and to help ensure curriculum, delivery, quality, CPD and work placements are all adequate to meet labour market needs”.
Pause level 3 reforms
The Department for Education is working to introduce a streamlined system for students finishing their GCSEs that pushes them to study either A-levels, their new technical equivalent T Levels, or an apprenticeship.
This involves axing funding for many existing alternative level 3 vocational and technical qualifications (VTQs), like BTECs and CTECs, from 2025 despite warnings from colleges, MPs and Lords that this rushed timeline will have a big negative impact on frontline learning.
The AoC’s report said: “We need an immediate pause to the proposed defunding of existing level 3 and below VTQs, until we can see how T Levels are working in terms of accessibility and progression for students, meeting industry needs and promoting social mobility.
“This pause would allow a wider review of the whole suite of qualifications to ensure that they are enabling and supporting every young person and adult to access the best possible pathways and outcomes.”