New report calls for boost to further education

David Kingman looks at a report that calls for more funding for further education, which its authors argue has been badly neglected under the recent emphasis on universities

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A new report from the think tank Policy Exchange calls for the government to divert funding away from universities in order to provide more resources for further education, which the authors argue has been badly neglected since the Conservatives were first elected in 2010.

Highlighting the UK’s shortage of skilled workers in a number of technical occupations, such as engineering and construction work, the report – entitled Higher, Further, Faster, More: Improving higher level professional and technical education – presents a convincing argument that government policy needs re-balancing so that high-quality further education is placed on an equal footing with higher education.

Spending cuts

At its heart, this report argues that there needs to be equal treatment of further and higher education, which is demonstrably not happening at present. This is manifested in two ways. Firstly, direct government funding for further education has been dramatically cut back over the last five years: since 2009/10 the adult skills budget has fallen by 25%, leading to a situation where the National Audit Office recently warned that a quarter of further education colleges could be on the brink of bankruptcy. Secondly, the income which further education institutions can receive from students is held back by the lack of student loans and maintenance support for further education colleges. By contrast, the report argues that the overall income of higher education institutions has risen by 26% since 2009/10 because they have been allowed to charge higher tuition fees.

Policy Exchange proposes that this situation could be remedied in two ways. They argue that direct funding for further education ought to be increased by redirecting £532 million of Higher Education Funding Council grant which is currently earmarked for universities toward further education, as the wealthiest higher education institutions have sufficient financial reserves to cover this loss of revenue from their own resources. If it was redirected, this funding could be used to improve the quality of higher level technical qualifications on offer at FE Colleges, National Colleges and Institutes of Technology. In the longer term, they argue that further education students should have the same access to the student loan system that students at universities have, so that students would receive the same amount of support regardless of whether they choose to go down a higher or further education pathway.

Shortage of skills

The report argues that these changes to government policy are necessary because the focus on increasing university participation over recent years has led to a neglect of further education. This may create serious problems for the UK economy; the report highlights that the Royal Academy of Engineering estimates Britain will need to train 830,000 more engineers by 2020, and there is a growing unmet need for skilled construction workers in London and the south east, particularly because of the number of major infrastructure projects which are currently being built.

These are the types of area where traditional universities either can’t produce enough graduates to meet the demand or generally don’t offer the relevant courses, so the further education system needs to be supported if Britain is to deliver enough skilled workers. Yet with record numbers of students currently starting at university, it is clear that higher education is still seem as the superior option, with prominent businessmen warning that there is still too much “stigma” attached to the alternative routes. It’s clear that the British economy requires a range of different skills if it is going to thrive over the coming decades, so education policy needs to take account of the fact that universities can’t provide all of them.