The Skills Bill could set the scene for Ofqual’s demise

14 Jun 2021, 6:00

external quality assurance

The government is effectively nationalising technical education through the Institute for Apprenticeships, writes Tom Bewick

 Leviathan was a mythical sea monster in the Book of Job. In the modern context, it refers to an enormous superstructure that sucks the life out of innovation, investment and entrepreneurial endeavour.

Monopolies – like those in the state or private sectors – are examples of how good intentions easily end up short-changing the public. Just think of the ongoing battle over the railways.

Enter, then, the post-16 Skills Bill. Don’t get me wrong: there’s a lot to welcome in the draft legislation. The individual lifelong learning entitlement is genuinely a step forward in eventually cementing a statutory right to adult education and retraining.

From a social policy point of view, it’s up there with the 1946 NHS Act, which established the idea of universal healthcare free at the point of need.

Notwithstanding the complex funding and qualifications rules governing the lifetime skills guarantee, it doesn’t take a genius to see how this concept can be built on in future.

But one major difference is that this is no longer the 1940s. People are sceptical of paternalistic institutions that are bossy and want to tell them what to do.

In many ways, that is the biggest flaw in the proposed legislation. Without offering any real evidence of how outcomes will be better, a Conservative government has set upon a course to nationalise technical education.

A Conservative government has set upon a course to nationalise technical education

The 18th-century philosopher Edmund Burke made the point that societies were best served by an approach to human affairs that “puts its trust in experience and in the gradual improvement of tried and tested arrangements”. Where, in this bill, is the trust in FE?

The draft legislation does not attempt to build on tried and tested qualifications.

Instead, it assumes the right of the secretary of state to effectively nationalise the technical education system via the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education.

The current regulator, Ofqual, has been sidelined in the process. One long-term reading of the legislation is that it sets the scene for Ofqual to be eventually abolished. After all, some might argue, what is the point of a statutory regulator if it has oversight over a diminishing part of the qualifications landscape?

As we’ve already seen with the development of T Levels, the government has assumed intellectual ownership and control of these qualifications. The legislation gives the Institute the right to run a state monopoly in qualifications, alongside its accreditation role of other quals that it doesn’t own.

Awarding organisations work under licence (commercial contracts) to deliver the content and curriculum expertise. This Bill paves the way for the Institute to extend this operating model to other forms of technical qualifications in future.

When combined with the rationalisation agenda of the below level 3 vocational qualifications review, it is apparent for all to see just how significant a re-making of the VTQ landscape this could turn out to be.

The Institute will have the power to put in place moratoriums to prevent the development of new qualifications, as well as the power to lift them.

It will also be able to designate technical courses that are not necessarily qualifications regulated by Ofqual or developed by awarding organisations.

In practice, this could mean a local college or FE provider could apply to the Institute to have its courses accredited, therefore bypassing the need to use qualifications offered by regulated awarding bodies.

The other significant powers the Institute will be assuming is the ability to charge fees for regulation. There will need to be safeguards built in during the passage of the Bill. We’ve already seen how EQA charges have added an “invoice chasing” culture to the apprenticeship programme.

With post-pandemic public expenditure under severe pressure, the Bill could be used as a funding ratchet, enabling the DfE to push even more of the costs of regulation onto the FE sector.

That’s why accepting Leviathan is never a good idea.

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