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New report calls for a skills strategy to coordinate post-16 provision and support collaboration between education providers

  • 23 November 2023
  • By Professor David Phoenix

The Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) is today publishing a new paper, Connecting the Dots: The Need for an Effective Skills System in England (HEPI Report 167).

It focuses on the urgent need to break down the educational barriers created by regulatory burden and competition between education institutions, which is preventing our skills system from meeting the needs of learners and employers across the country.

According to the report’s author, Professor David Phoenix, Vice-Chancellor of LSBU, the education system only serves learners well if they follow the standard route from GCSEs to A-Levels through to university; it fails to deliver clear pathways for those who do not, particularly for students wishing to study more technical or industry aligned provision. 

The Report highlights the fact that funding constraints are leading to ineffective levels of delivery through duplication across sectors, driving a quasi-market that is not necessarily in the interests of learners or the nation.

The Report then identifies the need for a national framework to enable regional networks of differentiated education institutions to develop, supported by a holistic cross-government skills strategy that considers industrial properties, regional prosperity and infrastructure development to facilitate a more integrated approach to education and the country’s future prosperity.

The Report includes a Foreword by Dr Diana Beech, Chief Executive Officer of London Higher, and an Afterword by David Hughes, Chief Executive of the Association of Colleges.

Professor David Phoenix, author of the report and Vice-Chancellor of London South Bank University (LSBU) and Chief Executive of LSBU Group, said:

England’s post-16 education system suffers from so many multiple and overlapping dysfunctions that it has become a misnomer to call it a system at all.

A learner wishing to pursue an intermediate level technical course will find a bewildering array of similar and overlapping qualifications being offered by their local sixth-forms, colleges and universities with no coordination between their provision.

This is a result of funding pressures that have forced education institutions to continually dilute their more specialist functions – with some colleges teaching everything from community education to Master’s Degrees. In parallel to these funding constraints driving competition for resource, regulatory burden – which can see some qualifications having up to four different regulatory bodies involved in quality assurance – is hindering collaboration.

Introducing a clear skills strategy linked to industrial priorities and regional prosperity coupled to reform of the education funding and regulation landscape are critical if we are serious about addressing the dysfunction of England’s post-16 education system.

Doing so would end the competition for learners that discourages the development of specialist providers and enable the joined-up partnerships required for an integrated system to emerge.

In a Foreword to the Report, Dr Diana Beech, Chief Executive Officer of London Higher and former adviser to three Ministers for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation, writes:

What is clear is that the old binary approach to tertiary education policy is no longer sufficient for England’s rapidly evolving post-18 educational landscape. And if the current or a future government is serious about promoting skills to improve national productivity and local economic growth, then a comprehensive framework is urgently needed which facilitates, not hinders, more tertiary partnerships and innovations. …

For a long time, universities and higher education providers have been emerging as anchor institutions in towns and cities across the country. The skills framework outlined in this report will now allow them to become anchors in a wider and all-encompassing vision for tertiary education, and importantly connecting skills of all levels to research, development and innovation.

In an Afterword, David Hughes, Chief Executive of the Association of Colleges, writes:

The current arrangements are simply not working for the challenges we face as a country. We spend a lot of tax revenue on education post-18 but the labour market is lacking in people with the skills, particularly at Levels 3, 4 and 5 to meet employer demand. Productivity is flat-lining and regional inequalities and the disadvantage gaps in educational achievement persist with no signs of improvement. Polling is telling the political parties that large numbers of people want more investment in technical education, delivered locally and flexibly, and, focused on helping people get better jobs which will pay enough to stand up to the cost of living crisis. …

Collaboration and coordination to make pathways for learners more straightforward and clear routes into good jobs with employers as partners in education will all help. A simple, effective, first step forwards at a national level would be a statement of priorities to include key areas like net zero, the NHS and digital. At a local level, the colleges and universities working with employers would be challenged with delivering on these priorities.’

The report:

  • highlights how financial pressures have caused sixth forms, colleges and universities to increasingly compete for 16-19 and sub-degree learners, in part by diluting their course offers;
  • explains how this competition, coupled with a morass of post-16 qualifications and a burdensome and complex regulatory system, is undermining education institutions’ ability to both specialise and cultivate effective partnerships to meet local skills needs; and
  • recommends creating a cross-departmental Post-16 Skills Council to oversee a national skills strategy, while ensuring that the funding regime supports universities, colleges and sixth forms to specialise and collaborate.

.Notes for editors

  1. Professor David Phoenix is Vice-Chancellor of London South Bank University (LSBU) and Chief Executive of LSBU Group.  His previous reports for HEPI are: Making a Success of Employer Sponsored Education (2016); Filling in the biggest skills gap: Increasing learning at Levels 4 and 5 (2018); and Designing an English Social Mobility Index (2021).
  2. LSBU Group, which includes London South Bank University, South Bank Colleges and South Bank Academies is a collection of like-minded but distinct specialist organisations, which work together under one academic framework to provide educational pathways for the learners of south London.
  3. HEPI was established in 2002 to influence the higher education debate with evidence. We are UK-wide, independent and non-partisan. We are funded by organisations and higher education institutions that wish to support vibrant policy discussions, as well as through our own events. HEPI is a company limited by guarantee and a registered charity.

1 comment

  1. Barrie Grey says:

    This is a really interesting report. From my perspective it is honest in both its discussions and conclusions. I would agree that there is huge disconnection and overlap.
    I welcome the conclusion that highlights the need for quality information, advice and guidance. At the heart of any skills strategy has to be the people that are developing those skills.
    I would go a little further to say that the system has to be simplified so the pathways are clear to the learner and their support network (such as parents). High quality advice and guidance is not in great supply and young people don’t necessarily understand it or look for professional advice.
    Given the rapidly changing labour market and the rise of AI and machine learning it will be interesting to see how a skills strategy can uncouple (a little) from industry outcomes. Often young people follow the ‘pre-defined route’ into HE not because they don’t understand the other options but they are not ready to make ‘what seems to be’ a specific career choice.

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