Without urgent action, we risk losing another generation of vocational learners

Funding is needed to ensure all learners can access the same opportunities regardless of their background, says David Gallagher

Funding is needed to ensure all learners can access the same opportunities regardless of their background, says David Gallagher

7 Jul 2023, 10:43

Many people reading this piece will know first-hand that the financial scars of the 2008 financial crash, and subsequent austerity measures, continue to undermine further education.

Our latest report, Austerity 2.0: A Lost Generation, details the depth and breadth of these scars in sobering detail, and explores how the comparable shocks of Covid-19, Brexit and the cost-of-living crisis will undermine a new generation of FE learners without urgent action from the government. 

From a helicopter view, we can see the devastating impact of the 2008 crash and austerity on the sector. As the report states, from a high of £7,750 per student in 2010, spending for students in 16-19 educational settings is yet to recover to pre-financial crash levels. 

Projections suggest that this will only rise to around £6,600 per student in the coming years – a 15 per cent decline which fails to account for the economic shocks seen in recent years and will undermine students’ prospects. Moreover, spending on adult further education and apprenticeships will still be 25 per cent lower in 2024/25 compared with 2010/11.

By no coincidence, total apprenticeship starts fell roughly 37 per cent from 2015/20, with Covid then going on to hamper starts in the past few years. The drivers behind starts and engagement with further education are of course complex, but the fragile nature of the sector means the longer-term picture is bleak.

The number of adults projected to be in funded FE, for example, is expected to decrease from 786,053 in 2022/23 down to 614,252 in 2025/26 – a fall of more than 21 per cent – at a time when our economy and labour market is in desperate need of the skills, talents and economic activity of as many people as possible.

This deeply troubling landscape has a significant impact on communities. Among the most deprived quintile of adults, participation in FE fell more than 29 per cent between 2016 and 2020. 

Moreover, the removal of the Education Maintenance Allowance, and similar support levers, has disadvantaged the poorest students seeking to enter FE. Without proper support for further education, the push for true social mobility will always fail.

The government’s rhetoric on support for skills suggests we have begun to turn a corner – for example, through the funding uplift for 16 to 19-year-olds and the latest adult education budget rise. Yet we need to build on this momentum if we are to ensure funding levels go far beyond those seen before the 2008 crash. 

Providing the required funding would ensure all learners can access the same opportunities regardless of their background, and power economic growth regionally and nationally.  

In support of this, we need central government to turbocharge a comprehensive communications campaign which highlights the essential importance of high-quality FE to students, parents, employers and the wider country. This is true for schools, also, whose role in providing careers advice must be overhauled to clearly outline the exciting opportunities available to students who wish to pursue technical and vocational courses.

There is a wider economic imperative, too. Reduced investment in FE means fewer students are entering courses that will enable them to gain the skills and knowledge they need to access high-skilled employment. 

Moreover, it means our businesses and employers cannot depend on the workforce they need to remain competitive internationally. This is particularly significant for key sectors such as digital, tech, health, and social care.

Quite apart from the long-term ramifications of the 2008 crash and austerity, the economic shock of Covid-19 and the unfurling cost-of-living crisis, combined with rapid policy and regulatory change, has left the sector in a fundamentally fragile state. 

The sector needs comprehensive support and transformational new measures to thrive, alongside a recognition that FE is seen as part of the solution to the problems we face as a society. There is, rightly, bold rhetoric about a “world-class skills system”, but this simply cannot be achieved without the funding to match.

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