The Government chose to brief its review into post-18 education as though it were all about university fees. This is a shame. Not only is the Government’s nuanced message on fees likely to fall flat amongst the youngest voters – who will hear Labour’s simple message on this issue more clearly – but it undermines the two crucial parts of the review: working out how best to encourage high-quality technical education and greater take-up; and how to make it easier for people to retrain later in life.
One of the under-told success stories of this Government is the progress they’ve made on non-university education. They have increased the quality of vocational courses for 16-year-olds and are in the process of doing the same for older students (through so-called “T-levels”). The Apprenticeship Levy is increasing the amount of investment and focus on apprenticeships. And now with this review there is a chance to step back and figure out how, as a whole, we want education after 18 to work.
This is vital in its own right. As we leave the EU and reduce our reliance on international labour it is vital we are able to train people domestically. This has to be a central plank of the industrial strategy. It’s also important politically, taking the Conservative Party into policymaking directly interesting to the sorts of voters this column has focused on since its inception: the lower middle class of provincial England who have the biggest say on who forms the British Government in the first place.
While there is little formal polling on the issue of technical education, having run opinion research projects on the issue of education for many years I know it’s an obsession of lower middle class and working class voters. It can’t be over-emphasised just how much parents support high-quality vocational education and the careers that follow on from securing qualifications in these areas. In fact, the message from parents is so strong it’s strange politicians have taken so long to hear them. It’s also worth remembering that many of these parents are not graduates themselves, and may not wish to pay higher general taxes in order to fund students who will personally benefit from a university education.
The review should therefore make sure it answers the following questions – in both policy and communications terms:
- How do we provide the right level of funding for different kinds of courses at different ages?
- How do we make sure that what people do is high quality?
- How do we most effectively prepare for a post-Brexit labour market?
- How do we get the right balance between people paying for things that are personally beneficial to them, and society paying for the right skills?
The launch has happened and can’t be redone, but from this moment it is vital the Government focus on what matters to parents, and voters, and that plays to their own strengths. Otherwise they will merely give Labour an opportunity to drive home the message that their fee policy is simpler, better, and fairer – while setting up students and parents for a big disappointment when a major fee reduction isn’t announced.
(Full disclosure: my mother-in-law, Professor Alison Wolf, is a specialist in vocational and technical education who led the government’s pre-16 vocational review, was on the panel of the review that led to the establishment of T-levels, and will now be on the panel for the new review.)