Even before the downturn and the threat to jobs created by the pandemic, England’s unbalanced approach to funding tertiary education had widened the skills gap and hindered social mobility. The system has focused on providing loans for full-time degree courses in academic subjects. While that led to a surge in graduates, it has also triggered a watering down of vocational and technical learning.
In 2000, more than 180,000 people were studying vocational or technical subjects at a higher level; a decade on it is less than 65,000. That has meant that just a tenth of adults hold such a qualification — compared with 20 per cent in Germany — even though, on average, people who hold them earn more after five years than counterparts with degrees. It has also left people in their 20s and beyond with far too few options to reskill, limiting labour market flexibility and their own prospects. The prime minister on Tuesday set out a plan to rectify this.
Downing Street is building on the work of the May 2019 Augar Review, which recommended providing life-long learning loans for a far greater range of courses than standard undergraduate degree programmes, usually undertaken on a full-time basis over three years. The loans, which would be offered on the same generous repayment terms as those for standard degrees, would be available to those wishing to study at any standard between GCSE-level and a full degree. Under the prime minister’s plan, the government would also offer all those without an A-Level or equivalent qualification a free fully-funded college course from April next year.
By spurring demand for adult education, universities and further education colleges are likely to cater better for society’s electricians and engineers than they currently do, offering more courses and options for flexible learning that can take place at times that better suit those already in work or with other life commitments. This could in turn help tackle a financial crisis in further education, which has seen its funding halved in real terms since 2010. Through the existing loans system, £8bn was committed to support 1.2m English undergraduates in the 2017-18 academic year; that compares with £2.3bn for 2.2m adult further education students.
The plan’s release appears somewhat rushed. Key details — such as which courses will be freely available — are missing, with a fuller picture only set to come in a white paper later this year. Greater clarity is also needed on the next steps for those successful in initial courses. And it may help to remedy some of the damage done to the labour market by the pandemic over the medium term. However, the April starting date will seem a long wait for the estimated 1m who are expected to be laid off once the chancellor’s furlough ends in late October.
A big question mark remains over how much the government is willing to spend on top of the loans. For all its economic benefits if done right, high-level vocational training is expensive. A postwar experiment with technical schools was abandoned on the basis of cost. Loans alone may not entirely plug the funding gap left by decades of under-investment. Yet Downing Street’s plan should be welcomed — not only for the good that it can do in plugging the skills gap, but also for recognising the substantial role adult education can play in enriching the lives of those who do not enter university immediately after leaving school. If well executed, the plan should help the economy’s recovery from coronavirus and create a more prosperous, cohesive society in its aftermath.