This is a guest blog kindly posted by Nick Isles, author and consultant.
It took its time but finally the Augar Review has landed. And for the Further Education (FE) sector there is much to celebrate. The review is clear. Enough is enough. No more Cinderella sector. If the UK wants to resolve the skills element of its productivity conundrum then the FE sector needs to be rapidly recapitalised, its workforce upskilled, its status upgraded and the regulatory system rebooted in order to deal with, what Augar describes, as the ‘missing middle’ of level 4 and 5 technical qualifications.
For too long FE has lacked the mission group lobbying expertise, and class-based resilience of higher education. FE has long languished in terms of the amount of ear-time and air-time it has been given in Whitehall, and especially in those parts of Whitehall that matter. Augar has potentially reversed that. The review has made the FE investment case with some clarity and a degree of urgency.
The newspaper headlines and blogosphere may have been dominated by a seeming heavyweight versus flyweight clash for resources between HE and FE but in reality Augar is seeking to have its cake and eat it. It wants to reform and invest in both sectors by reducing ‘low value’ HE and boosting ‘high value’ FE. Moreover the review is explicit in its arguments for more control by the state over two sectors which are nominally autonomous. It spells the end of marketization as we have known it – certainly for FE. For as the report clearly states:
‘Rationalisation of the network to even out provision across over-supplied and undersupplied areas, funding for some specialised colleges and closer links with HE and other providers would help establish a genuinely national system of higher technical education’
pp9-10 Review of Post-18 Education and Funding
So Augar’s ‘invest and reform’ agenda is much needed and welcome. The review makes some very sensible suggestions about how to achieve its stated vision of ‘A national network of collaborative FECs that provide high quality technical and professional education with a clear focus on Levels 3, 4 and 5, delivered flexibly and aligned to the needs of local economies..’ P118 Review of Post-18 Education and Funding
But what is missing? What else is needed that might persuade the incoming Prime Minister and his Chancellor that investing £1 billion of capital over the life of the spending review; and increasing revenue funding for colleges, is a frontier priority?
The answer lies, I think, in recognising the need to do three things simultaneously. The first is for the FE sector to unite behind a comprehensive lobbying effort to implement Augar. This is particularly important for the nascent Institutes of Technology (IoTs). The report’s reforms go with the grain of what the government wants to achieve with these institutions. The 12 groups need to act as one. Together they represent over 50 powerful FE and HE institutions and many more leading employers. It is important that the FE lobbying effort is not about depriving HE. It needs to be about collaboration with HE – hence my suggestion that it could be led by the IoT network as a new voice.
The second thing is to emphasise that FE is primarily about skills, skills and skills. The reorganisation discussed in Augar needs to ensure every LEP area (if that is the sensible geographic organising principle) has the equivalent of an Institute of Technology facing its sector clusters and co-producing the curriculum. To aid such co-production there needs to be a skills’ innovation fund, provided by a national innovation bank. It needs employer-led governance arrangements. It needs local skills concordats that ensure medium to long term funding from the current funding sources including ESFA and LEPs. 16-18 provision and community provision below level 3 should be offered by a separate organisation as part of the local college group arrangement along with expanding existing quality providers.
The final reform is about leadership. The pay of college principals, unlike all other college staff, has grown considerably under the current system (certainly since incorporation). Too many of today’s principals have got to the top of the greasy pole and been incentivised by, arguably, seeking to minimise risk and helping implement the system as it is. But good stewardship is not enough. A reformed FE sector needs a new type of leadership. Put simply we need leaders who hold a ‘skills’ mindset. The Review’s recommendations require nothing less. Colleges are the beating heart of the skills system and leading them requires a different approach to the one we have now. New leadership talent needs to be identified from within and without the sector and fast tracked into place.
The Augar review is a fine piece of work. Its authors are to be congratulated. Its analysis is acute. Its proposals potent. Now the hard work begins to persuade the next Cabinet that implementing the review’s proposals (and more) will be a key investment for the UK’s emerging network economy.