Devolution is not incompatible with learner demand – but it is a barrier

Mark Dawe channels Bon Jovi to make the case for putting learners in charge of how further education is financed

Mark Dawe channels Bon Jovi to make the case for putting learners in charge of how further education is financed

10 Dec 2023, 5:00

I am convinced what Bon Jovi’s famous Living on a prayer was really about was a demand-led adult skills system. Let me explain.

Got to hold on to what we’ve got

The introduction of the apprenticeship levy saw a seismic shift in employer-led funding. While employers rightly still challenge whether the system is genuinely an employer-led system, the funding itself is definitely demand-led. Indeed, depending on the outcome of the election, the levy might be opened up to fund other employer learning in addition to apprenticeships.

However, for individuals accessing FE it is still very much based on central government-controlled funding model. And when it comes to adult learners devolved authorities also continue to exercise a lot of control, with over half of adult funding allocated and tendered through them.

The question we should be asking is ‘how can we have a proper learner demand-led system?’. The question we’re actually left with is ‘how can such a thing even be compatible with devolution?’.

We can probably answer both of these questions. “[whoa-oh] we’ll give it a shot”

We’re half-way there

Level 4 and above learning is getting the Lifelong Learning Entitlement and finally supporting a unitised approach to learning. But why does the government think it is appropriate for higher-level courses and not for level 3 and below? This stinks of bias, and only makes things tough, so tough for the already under-resourced.

As to cost, there’s no reason the policy couldn’t be rolled out in phases. Let’s not forget there is an adult entitlement to level 3 and below learning too. We just make it impossible to access!

Meanwhile, level 4 learners get access to £28,000 of funding while others don’t.  With such an individual account (which includes grant funding for the entitlement along with loan funding), there could be all sorts of exciting opportunities to provide tax incentives for individuals and employers to add to their pots.

You live for the fight

Those who argue against a learner demand-led system always quote the scandalous failure of the individual learner accounts over 20 years ago. There are probably three key lessons that need to be heeded:

The provider free-for-all

At the time, there were 8910 providers, with no quality control. We know how to do provider registers and appropriate regulatory controls now. From day one, our existing registers would safeguard every learner and every penny spent.

Horses for courses

The anything goes approach to courses that characterised individual learner accounts is no longer even imaginable. Clearly, we need a clear set of approved, funded courses, which should and easily could include approved units to allow a unitised approach to learning, while still working towards a full qualification.

Tech utopianism

IT systems quite simply didn’t work. But the future promised then is with us now. Even the possibility of a learner account app is readily deliverable.

We’ll make it I swear

The fact is that a fully learner demand-led system is possible. The challenge is to make it work in a devolved world – one that, depending on your viewpoint, is either creating a postcode lottery or responding to local need.

If we agree that every citizen has a right to access the same funding for training wherever they are in the country if they have a learning need – which is surely the premise of the LLE – then the key concern is not really about learners, but about the role of devolved authorities in such a system.

But they needn’t worry for them. Baby it’s okay. There are specific regional needs, skills deficits and priorities. Someone has to stimulate the supply and demand to meet these needs, and devolved authorities are perfectly placed to be given funding and powers to do so, as well as identify gaps and stimulate or pump prime colleges and providers to deliver the necessary programmes.

So take my hand, and let’s build on the LLE to deliver the kind of genuine learner demand-led system that works for all learners. By giving them the funding, we can stimulate employers, providers and create a bespoke role for devolved authorities to deliver for communities. More than that, we can ensure fewer of our potential learners go on living on a prayer.

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  1. Steve Hewitt

    Except it’s not clear to me that we (in the broadest sense) *do* want a learner demand-led system below level 4? Nothing in any of the reforms/changes of the last decade suggests we do. Government at all levels seems intent on saying “these are the skills we want to pay for, if you want to do something else, tough”, from the limited list for Free Courses For Jobs to the wider qualification reforms (where “thousands” of qualifications will, apparently, go away) there is no suggestion that the learner has any say at all…

  2. For those able to look at the education sector as a single organism, I think the tune that is playing is ‘For the Love of Money’ by The O’Jays.

    However, when it comes to the Treasury they just have ABBA on repeat, with the volume cranked up.

    (not that one, the other one about money!)