Professor Edward Peck is Vice Chancellor of Nottingham Trent University and a member of the Augar Review.
The Prime Minister and Secretary of State for Education have made bold statements about their commitment to revolutionising post-18 education. They want to open new opportunities for all those who do not attend university and, indeed, for some of those that do. There has been talk of a German-style system, boosting both the number undertaking technical education and the status of further education qualifications.
These speeches have been widely welcomed. Many employers are desperate for applicants to have the skills to drive up their productivity. Many adults are keen to gain those skills to boost their employment prospects, income and security. Many experienced providers of technical and vocational education, both universities and further education colleges, stand ready to offer more flexible routes to skills-based qualifications. There is the potential for an alignment of demand and supply that could deliver the revolution the Government seeks, driving economic growth, in particular in those seats in the Midlands and North where it has promised to “level-up”.
What could possibly go wrong? A repeat of the piecemeal and half-hearted approach to funding skills-based education and training that has undermined serious progress in this area for decades. Past generations of politicians have identified the importance of the issue but have baulked at the level of investment necessary to back good intentions with significant interventions.
What would work? The adoption of the proposal to introduce Lifelong Learning Loan Accounts, which was the cornerstone of the Augar Review into the future funding of post-18 education. These accounts would enable adults from the time they leave school up to pre-retirement age to access loans for fees and maintenance for approved skills programmes on the same terms as those available to undergraduate students.
Flexibility would be central, based on the needs of learners and employers. The loans would enable study for sub-degree qualifications, encompassing short accredited courses as well as longer apprenticeship-style programmes taken over several years. They would enable adults to study part time, to complete their studies over a period of time that fitted around their other commitments, to take the credits they had achieved already to another provider.
There is strong evidence to suggest that this approach would encourage adults to borrow to invest in their own future. The sharp increase in enrolments following the introduction of loans for postgraduate study in England has shown that the financial support package available to learners is crucial to unleashing demand.
Furthermore, research on the recipients of these loans shows that they were taken in roughly equal proportions across all social groups. This demonstrates an appetite across society for individuals to invest in their own future and that of their families.
Large numbers of universities and further education colleges provide the one day per week educational component of apprenticeship programmes funded under the Apprenticeship Levy. Much of this provision is moving online as apprentices return to work, more evidence of the responsiveness to the market that characterises much of our post-18 system.
Increased future flexibility in the ways in this levy could be utilised, in particular being deployed alongside employees’ own loans, could produce a new model of co-investment in skills developments that benefits both parties. This would also result in a better balance between state, employee and employer responsibility in the developing the key skills that the economy needs.
The Government has acknowledged the requirement for it to meet its part of the bargain, announcing a £2.5bn national skills fund. The opportunity is to commit this money to both meeting immediate skills needs through training grants and modelling how a new long-term approach based on Lifelong Learning Loan Accounts could be phased in over the lifetime of this parliament.
The Government is working on a White Paper that it is anticipated will set out a far-reaching and joined-up package of measures to transform technical and vocational education in this country over the long term.
However, without a similarly ambitious approach from the Treasury, history is in danger of repeating itself. This has held back growth and productivity in our economy in the past. Regrettable then, in the times of Brexit and Covid-19 recovery, it may well turn out to be disastrous for businesses, voters and politicians alike.