Improving social mobility demands better data on FE outcomes

New research shows FE courses lead to better earnings but their social mobility potential is limited by patchy and poorly communicated data, says Alun Francis

New research shows FE courses lead to better earnings but their social mobility potential is limited by patchy and poorly communicated data, says Alun Francis

9 Feb 2023, 9:08

As Interim Chair of the Social Mobility Commission and a college principal, I am acutely aware of the value of high-quality technical and professional education and training. Further education colleges provide huge economic and social value to their communities, but their qualifications are sometimes not as well-known and less frequently recommended to students. There can also be a lack of reliable information about how the qualifications translate into value in the labour market. This is something that needs fixing.

Today, the Social Mobility Commission has released a report looking at the effect of pursuing a further or higher education qualification on a student’s earning potential. The evidence clearly shows that further education qualifications in general are associated with an increased income, and that this is true at each higher level of FE qualification.

The data by subject is less easy to access. HE qualifications have better data overall, but our report shows that some university courses seem not to boost incomes at all, implying that some students may be better off going to FE than HE.

The fact that FE qualifications in general are associated with higher earnings needs to be more widely disseminated in schools. These qualifications should be an option that more students actively consider and society celebrates.

However, our survey of current students shows that one-third of those considering an FE qualification did not know whether information about typical earnings they could expect after studying a particular course was available, and that this information would be an important factor in their decision about what and where to study.

This lack of information is preventing students from making informed decisions, based on the factors that are important to them. This is a problem which affects everyone.

Those from lower socio-economic backgrounds may be less likely to have strong networks to help them navigate education and career choices, and are impeded from understanding which courses and institutions offer the best opportunities for higher earnings later in life, and the chance to improve social mobility. But even those with supportive networks may struggle if the path they are considering is different to those of family and friends.

Lack of information is preventing students from making informed decisions

Our research clearly highlights a relative lack of evidence about further education qualification outcomes. This is different from the evidence relating to the earnings by level of study.

There are large-scale graduate surveys looking at the careers and salaries of recent higher education graduates which provide robust data on their average earning outcomes. The same does not exist for further education, limiting the data we have available.

The significant changes made to further education qualifications in the past decade have also had a detrimental impact on the usefulness of historical data for prospective learners. With the creation of many new qualifications and the reform of existing ones, we lack consistent information on comparable outcomes. The huge variety of courses also means that information is incredibly fragmented and sample sizes can be too small to provide statistically significant conclusions.

It is essential that we find better ways of collecting and representing data on the value which a particular further education qualification adds to earnings. This will allow students considering a further education qualification to make better, more informed decisions and make further education qualifications feel like a realistic and attractive prospect for an even wider range of students.

Our aim at the Social Mobility Commission is to use this report as a springboard to encourage the production of better data around labour market outcomes for further education qualifications, in order to help learners make more informed decisions, and help them better understand the link between individual qualifications and career progression.

Through this work, we want to break out from a narrow focus on a small number of learning pathways and highlight the many opportunities available to help learners find and apply their skills.

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