FE’s educational ethos is being overshadowed by market logic

25 Oct 2021, 6:00

The vocabulary of employability and finance is taking over, writes Zahid Naz

In recent years there has been a shift away from the social values of education towards a form of economic rationality with two main concerns.

This can be seen in the strategic direction of policy initiatives, such as the 2019 education inspection framework (EIF) and the 2021 FE white paper.  

First, the educational ethos – which fosters an orientation to curiosity – seems to have been overshadowed by the demands of the market. 

Second, little attention has been paid to the socio-economic constraints within which FE colleges operate. 

Framed within this economic rationality, the role of further education providers has become inextricably linked to being a solution to the skills deficit. This is, of course, an absolutely vital part of FE’s role.

But as a result of this hyper focus, the curriculum “intent” of FE providers is being constructed around the vocabulary of employability and finance.

Yet education also encourages the development of students’ emancipatory, political and aesthetic potential. We need to focus on teaching and learning practices from the standpoint of pedagogical, rather than marketised, logic. 

The overemphasis on a model of education dedicated to the economy works to dwarf the significance of abstract and powerful knowledge in humanities and social sciences.

The ‘intent’ of FE providers is being constructed around the vocabulary of employability and finance

It also undermines the core education values of intellectual independence, imagination and selflessness. 

The underlying rationale for this perspective may well lie in an assumption about FE students’ intellectual ability. It could also reflect assumptions about their previous grades, which could reflect a range of socio-economic factors rather than act as real markers of “intelligence”.

So, it would be unreasonable to assume these learners are not developmentally ready to process “difficult theoretical knowledge” and therefore need only be employment-ready.

Instead, we could combine technical and academic knowledge, which could make the latter more accessible for FE students.

The inclusion of “powerful knowledge”, through subjects such as history, politics and philosophy, can add value to vocational curricula. However, the Skills for Jobs white paper makes no mention of this.

For example,  it says the key focus is on economic growth and jobs, which will be delivered by “putting employers at the heart of the system so that education and training leads to jobs that can improve productivity and fill the skills gap”.

But an approach that valued powerful knowledge would not only enhance FE learners’ ability to meet civic obligations to the public and the market, but also make FE qualifications a better progression route into higher education. 

We know from figures on access to university released by the government last week that the entry gap between disadvantaged and more affluent students is now the widest it has been in 15 years.

Another concern I have is how the education inspection framework, which mainly draws on research from school settings, puts FE at a considerable disadvantage. 

FE is a complex environment, and the demographics of FE colleges are different from schools. FE provides its learners with a chance to continue their education at whatever level is best suited to them.

We know from evidence that the personal skills wanted by employers and education institutions are social competences often shaped through previous experiences.

This includes experiences informed by social class and gender. Students will display these competences to different degrees.

It’s for this reason that differentiated assessment tools should be applied to colleges, rather than a universal inspection framework based on a one-size-fits-all perspective. 

The market-based rationality is also embedded in the EIF, which, like the white paper, links the role of FE to employability skills. It also functions to obscure the significance of powerful socio-political knowledge as well as vitally important traditional educational principles.

For example, the key focus is on the attainment of “qualifications, skills and behaviours that enable students to find employment”. The onus is on a college to ensure that learners recognise that their skills are transferable.

Overall, a reform in FE policymaking that puts pedagogy, not just market needs, at the forefront of FE curricula is long overdue.

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  1. Lucy Moy-Thomas

    Zahid Naz is right to question the vocabulary of employability and finance in FE, but he’s far too late. The move from education to training, from ‘students’ to ‘trainees’ was introduced long ago in the National Vocational Framework and system of NVQs. When learning is broken down into separate ‘competences’ each assessed by observation, the learner is conceived, not as a thinking person but as a functional unit in an economic system. Teaching FE students to think, question and make their own judgements will not fit them to be compliant workers.

    • Anne O'Toole

      The horse bolted quite some time ago and as Lucy Boy-Thomas rightly pinpoints the move from ‘students’ to ‘trainees’ was introduced long ago. Therefore, there has not been a ‘recent’ shift.
      I am curious about what an emancipatory, political and aesthetic potential looks like.

      • Zahid Naz

        Yes, the shift has its genesis in Callaghan’s Ruskin College speech which started ‘The Great Debate’ about the nature and purpose of public education. Some argue it started before that in the 60s. Nonetheless recent policy agendas have intensified the consumerist focus in education.
        Exploiting emancipatory potential involves thinking about the purpose of of education from not only an economic but also from academic (intellectual), political and social perspectives. In practice, this requires rethinking education policy and redefining how knowledge networks such as colleges design their curriculum, use marking systems and examinations and gauge achievement rates to develop students’ creativity and critical thinking skills.