End of term report: people are waking up to the need to rebalance FE and HE

13 Jul 2019, 5:00

The new prime minister will have to rise to the skills and productivity challenge, and make sure that everyone, no matter where they come from, can get a chance to have a great job, says skills minister Anne Milton

With the end of term in mind, and alongside all the changes that are going on in government, I thought it a good moment to comment on some of the vital work in progress. I want the next prime minister to make sure the work on technical and vocational education continues to be a priority and that we build on what we have already achieved.

Significant progress has been made on our technical education reforms: the first T-levels are on track to be rolled out in 2020; the first Institutes of Technology will launch later this year; and we continue to see more people starting on apprenticeships.

I want the progress we have made to be a step change in how further education (FE) is viewed in this country. People are finally waking up to the need for a rebalance between FE and HE. There is much more recognition of the huge impact our further education sector plays in supporting more people to gain the skills they need to get a good job, get on the path to great careers – and for the country, boosting productivity.

This week we published the findings from our review of level 4 and 5 qualifications – or Higher Technical Qualifications – and we launched new proposals to make sure more people and employers can take advantage of them in the future.

All the evidence from our review highlights that higher technical skills (the type that many level 4 or 5 qualifications can provide) are increasingly in demand from employers, but the uptake remains worryingly low. Only 1 in 10 adults in England have studied for a qualification at this level, despite the prospect of better wages and job prospects.

I want the progress we have made to be a step change in how FE is viewed in this country

The skills our economy needs now and in the future are not always aligned with the qualifications on offer and we need to make sure that we change that. Young people need to be better informed when it comes to studying for jobs and careers in key sectors such as science, technology and engineering.

Some of this is about all of us continuing to bang the drum about the benefits of technical education. We need to dispel the intellectual snobbery that still exists which dissuades some students from choosing this route in favour of a traditional academic option.

There is no overnight fix for changing the way technical and vocational education is seen by the public, but we can make sure that the qualifications and options that are available are high-quality, are valued by students, parents and employers and ultimately get more people on a path to a good, well-paid job.

That is at the heart of everything we are doing – from the introduction of new T-levels, our reforms to apprenticeships, as well as consulting on changes to post-16 qualifications at level 3 and below, and our new level 4 and 5 proposal. It is all about providing a choice of high-quality options as well as logical, clear training routes that everyone can understand.

I have said it many times before but it’s worth repeating that the further education sector is the beating heart of all of this. Without it, without you, none of this would be possible.

You all do an amazing job and I want that continue. We still have a long way to go and I know many of you have raised concerns about funding in particular.

These are once-in-a-generation reforms and while I don’t imagine that we are going to get everything right at the first time of asking, if we want to make a success of them in the long term, we need a strong sustainable and coherent technical education system. This will help unlock untapped potential and boost our economy.

The new prime minister will have to rise to this challenge if we are to have the skills we need to increase productivity and make sure that everyone, no matter where they come from can get a chance to have a great job and fulfilling life. This will be critical to the future prosperity of individuals and the country as a whole.

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  1. Jo Kitchen

    If the minister really does place FE in the same light as HE then it needs to fund it properly. It needs to pay staff the correct remuneration for the job they do. FE is the poor relative of education as a whole, yet, in my opinion vocationally key to the success of the UK especially after Brexit where there will be massive skill shortages across a variety of sectors. FE needs proper funding now.

    • Professor Bill Wardle

      Absolutely agree. But it is change on such a scale that re-invention rather than re-balancing needed, or even giving ‘FE’ a funding priority over HE for some time. HE can probably take care of itself and those institutions not capable of securing adequate fees are probably best left hindmost to the financial devil. Augar suggests that there are too many colleges in certain metropolitan areas: the same can be said of universities. Augar cites Greater Manchester as an area of college-surfeit, and it could certainly lose a university or two without compromising choice and probably enhancing quality.

      Re-balancing, re-funding needs to come at the end of a strategic review (Royal Commission?) looking at post-18 structure in relation to curriculum and the economy’s/employers’ needs. A combined Dearing/Foster type exercise for a once in a generation shift.