Make 2022 the year FE is unchained at last

14 Feb 2022, 6:00

FE is the best place for adults to upskill – but it needs lobbyists in parliament, writes Andy Forbes

This year, the FE sector has a real chance of moving centre stage.

Why this year, you ask, after so many frustrating years of flatline funding and piecemeal initiatives?

It’s a combination of things. Three things have become apparent.

1. Fewer adults accessing university 

The successful expansion of the university sector has benefitted many young people, but not those from the “left behind” areas of the country. 

For most adults, access to higher education has become more difficult, not better. There has been a steep 36 per cent fall in adult and part-time university students between 2015-16 and 2019-20.

Meanwhile, over the past decade, the increase in the proportion of students from low-income backgrounds getting in to university has been less than two per cent.

2. FE better for part-time learners

When you look at where adult higher education has best resisted decline, it’s in FE colleges. Part-time enrolment has dropped by 44 per cent in the higher education sector since 2015.

But it has dropped by much less – 20 per cent – in colleges. Colleges now deliver as much sub-degree higher education as the university sector. 

In most areas of the country, if you’re a working adult and want to improve your skills to get better paid work, your local FE college is often the best bet. 

3. Colleges deliver ‘levelling up’ opportunities

When you look at those areas across Britain that are most in need of levelling up, it’s usually the local FE college – often working in partnership with universities – that is delivering opportunities on the ground. 

FE colleges, as inclusive local institutions, are uniquely placed to reach hard-pressed communities others can’t.

And hallelujah! The long-awaited levelling up white paper published last week, acknowledges this.

It includes a commitment “to strengthen locally accessible institutions, notably the national network of further education colleges”.

I’m more aware than ever of just how big a breakthrough this is, because since joining a London-based think tank which has the ear of government, I’ve realised just how little detailed knowledge of the FE sector there still is in the circles that policy gurus and civil servants inhabit.

Universities can afford to put significant resources into continually influencing ministers and lobbying in their interests. FE colleges can’t, and so they struggle to get heard. 

So the policy door is now ajar and FE needs to put its foot in right away! 

The policy door is now ajar

With the skills bill due back in parliament for its third reading this month, and with the flagship levelling up white paper now out, the next few months will be critical. 

ResPublica’s lifelong education commission has put in eight skills bill amendments.

This includes sweeping away the rules penalising those on universal credit for taking courses, and also removing the outdated equivalent or lower qualification rules that prevent adults from doing courses at lower levels, even when they need to do this to make a career change. 

Meanwhile in response to the levelling up white paper, the commission has this week issued a skills and levelling up manifesto , with ten headline ideas. 

These include proposals for a single all-age careers service, an entitlement to free English language training for all adults, and giving devolved authorities the power to make selected level 4 to 6 courses free. 

We all know skills shortages have hit the national headlines, with the pressing need to get the economy growing again after the pandemic and the arrival of a whole new political agenda around levelling up.

The minds of those in government are now focused on how best to grow a skilled workforce. 

So please. Talk to your local MP and local authority leaders. Tell them again what FE is offering, and how FE and HE could work together even more closely with the right policies and funding in place.

Point out once again how much more the FE sector could do if it was properly funded and supported. 

Make 2022 the year that FE is unchained at last.

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