Time to end ‘bogus’ HE-FE distinction, says Boris Johnson

PM heralds moves to create Lifetime Skills Guarantee and to open loans system to FE colleges so they can ‘compete’ with universities

九月 29, 2020
A police officer outside No.10 Downing Street, London

Boris Johnson has called for an end to the “bogus distinction” between further and higher education, as he heralded government plans for a Lifetime Skills Guarantee giving individuals flexible access to four years of post-18 education in England.

Student loans in higher education will be made “more flexible” to give greater scope for lifelong learning, allowing study in shorter segments and supporting part-time study.

The government unveiled the plans – which accept a recommendation in the Augar review of post-18 education – as part of a package that will also allow adults without an A level or equivalent qualification to take a free fully funded college course from April.

The move, which will include facilitating credit transfer, is part of the government’s plan to help the country “build back better” in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic’s economic impact.

The government announced a £2.5 billion National Skills Fund in the March 2020 budget and the announcement fleshes out the detail.

In a speech following the announcement, Mr Johnson said the pandemic had highlighted “a shortage of UK-trained lab technicians” and also said there were shortages of skilled construction workers, engineers and IT workers, which he argued was down to a shortage of “supply” in skills.

The post-18 education system “is not working in such a way as to endow people with these skills”, he added.

“I don’t for a second want to blame our universities,” the prime minister continued, calling the expansion of higher education one of the UK’s “great achievements”. But he said that a “significant and growing minority” of university graduates were now working in non-graduate jobs.

And he called for young people to be given the chance to look at “more practical options” which “lead more directly to well-paid jobs”.

Mr Johnson said he wanted to “end this bogus distinction between further education and higher education”, saying that further education colleges would be given full access to the student loans system so they are “better able to compete with universities”.

The prime minister said that he hoped that creating flexible funding on a lifetime basis would allow people to study part-time or to enter university later in life if they wanted to.

The government would “expand and reform the funding and loan system so it is as easy to get a loan for a higher technical course as it is for a degree”, he said. There would be a “lifelong entitlement to four years of post-18 education”, he added.

“Higher education loans will also be made more flexible, allowing adults and young people to space out their study across their lifetimes, take more high-quality vocational courses in further education colleges and universities, and to support people to retrain for jobs of the future,” the government’s announcement said.

Baroness Wolf, the King’s College London professor and Augar review member who is now a skills and workforce policy adviser in the Number 10 Policy Unit, has long advocated a lifelong learning fund to make higher education more flexible.

The number of part-time and mature students in English higher education plummeted after the trebling of tuition fees.

The government’s announcement said that in England “only 10 per cent of adults hold a higher technical qualification as their highest qualification, compared to 20 per cent in Germany and 34 per cent in Canada”.

“This is despite the fact that five years after completion, the average higher technical apprentice earns more than the average graduate.

“That is why the government is committed to making higher education more flexible to facilitate lifelong learning, and to make it easy for adults and young people to break up their study into segments, transfer credits between colleges and universities, and enable more part-time study.

“This new arrangement will provide finance for shorter term studies, rather than having to study in one three- or four-year block.”

john.morgan@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (3)

In a speech following the announcement, Mr Johnson said the pandemic had highlighted “a shortage of UK-trained lab technicians” . Something being discussed on the UK Lab Superintendents group yesterday, many are struggling to replace older skilled staff that are retiring, in my research institute many technician roles are now done by PhD holders from Europe, how many will stay after Brexit is currently an unknown, but they earn and learn more here. “I don’t for a second want to blame our universities,” the prime minister continued, calling the expansion of higher education one of the UK’s “great achievements”. But he said that a “significant and growing minority” of university graduates were now working in non-graduate jobs. This was always going to happen, Bliar's dumping additional young people onto Universities to keep them off the dole que, with the smoke and mirrors claim of improving social mobility, has done much damage. Through the subsequent loading of debt, much like Thatcher's selling off council homes to residents, makes it easier to 'control' them. That many 'graduates' have meaningless degree's that have no place in a normal workplace doesn't help.
The difference between HE and FE is valid. I have taught in both. FE is fantastic at training, delivering the skills that people need to do a given job, or preparing them to learn those skills (if doing 'sixth form' work). HE is about finding out more about a subject that interests you, which may or may not lead directly to a job. It equips you with an enquring mind and the tools to feed that curiousity... which can include acquiring the skills you need for the career you have chosen. Only a few vocational courses send you out with some of the skills you need - and even potential doctors and lawyers need further hands-on training before they can be let loose in their chosen career! There's room for both FE and HE, and indeed both should be adequately funded, but it's delusional to think they provide the same thing!
Great news but......... If properly implemented as a Life Long policy this could improve productivity, advance social mobility, benefit many talented individuals who had a poor school experience or matured in later years. However, it is not a quick solution and it is no good encouraging people to start courses at level 3 and above next April if they are not likely to finish the courses or do not have the ability and attitude needed to benefit from the opportunity. By all means give people who will benefit a second chnace. However, if this is just a political gimick it could be a massive waste of money. Historically we have more people with level 2 qualifications than level 3 at the age of 18. Poor Literacy and Numeracy skills could prevent many potential students taking up the new opportunity. There is also a capacity issue to consider. At the moment FE and HE do not have enough quality "teachers" to do the new training. The devil, as always, is in the detail and the execution of the policy is likely to prove more difficult than the announcement of the policy.

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