Very often, people speak as if there is a trade off between further education and higher education. It is vocational versus academic. Useful versus ivory towers. Colleges versus universities.
Anyone who spends more than a few seconds thinking about this swiftly realises it is largely nonsense. Higher education originally trained people for the church, the law and medicine. You don’t get much more vocational than that.
Today, some modern universities have more than half their students on employer-focused courses. Meanwhile, there are 155,000 16-to- 18 year old students in colleges doing so called ‘academic’ A-Level courses. In Scotland, one-third of young full-time undergraduate study is done in further education colleges.
In short, for many people, it is not about further education as an alternative to higher education. For them, further education is the route to higher education. Figures for Scotland are again instructive: more than one-in-four new undergraduates from Scotland at university have previously attended a college – and these students are often crucial to ensuring widening participation.
So it is not in the interests of colleges to have weak universities and it is not in the interests of universities to have weak colleges. No wonder then David Hughes, the head of the Association of Colleges, and Alistair Jarvis, the head of Universities UK, are both always careful not to set themselves and the institutions they represent against one another.
As I have quoted before, Lord Kerslake (the co-author of a recent HEPI paper) put it very well in the House of Lords last year: ‘There is no great nobility in austerity that should compel us to transfer funding from one part of the [post-18 education] sector to the other.’
So many people inside universities will have cheered on the announcement in the Budget yesterday of extra money for further education capital spending, designed ‘to level up FE’.
And yet tensions between higher and further education have sometimes been encouraged by public authorities.
For example, the Terms of Reference for the Augar review said: ‘its recommendations must be consistent with the Government’s fiscal policies to reduce the deficit and have debt falling as a percentage of GDP.’ In other words, any recommendations they wished to make on delivering extra support to one part of post-18 education had to come at the cost of another bit of the post-18 education system.
Fortunately, the Augar report was a submission to a wider Government review that has yet to report and the Government itself has much more leeway than Augar, especially when the spending review comes around. Yesterday, the Chancellor confirmed the spending review would finally happen, concluding by July 2020.
If they want to, at that point, Ministers could opt to spend more on early years and primary schools and secondary schools and sixth-form colleges and further education colleges and higher education institutions.
While this might not be affordable relative to other Government priorities, it shouldn’t be controversial to say that each part of the education system benefits other parts of the education system because each stage is part of the pipeline for the next stage.
When he was the Minister for Universities and Science, David Willetts was often told that public spending should be redirected even more towards early years and that even less public spending should go on higher education. He would respond by asking what the point of spending so much on early years was if that investment wasn’t kept up afterwards. It’s like building the foundations of a building and then giving up in the hope that the rest of the building will build itself.
After all, university policy was not put back in the Department for Education in order to denude universities but in order to build connections between universities and the other stages of education.
Budget Postscript: For many years, we have been pointing out the woeful record of the Office for Budget Responsibility on forecasting student numbers (which has a direct impact on government borrowing). We had feared our work on this had been ignored. So it is good to see the OBR’s key budget document, which yet again significantly changes the forecasts for future student numbers, refer to our critique of their forecasting and, specifically, our blog on ‘The official forecast of student numbers that is so often wrong, it’s nicknamed ‘the hedgehog’. The OBR is now predicting there will be 35,000 more English-domiciled student entrants eligible for student loans in 2020 than it was predicting this time last year (plus a further 36,000 in 2021 and another 35,000 in 2022 – meaning over 100k more students over the three years).
I agree we should not rob Peter to pay Paul when it comes to government spending on FE and HE.
However, we must not forget the total expenditure in each sector and seek to nudge the government to spend tax payer money more wisely.
For those under age 18, we already have public schools and private training providers ( funded with public money and the private sector)and for those over 18, their employers and the individuals themselves.
If we believe in inclusion and social mobility, I would suggest government funding concentrates on those below the age of 16, then those under 18 and then those under 24.
At every stage we still need to ensure we get the best return on tax payer investment. This means more clarity about what outcomes are expected from government spending on education and skills.