As I write this piece, skills gaps widen in the UK’s key industries, employers still regularly complain that education isn’t creating the employees with the skills they need, and youth unemployment and underemployment remain a challenge.
Our education system is meant to address these issues but somehow it doesn't seem to. And there are even greater challenges ahead. Brexit looms and threatens to stem the flow of talented workers to the UK and potentially discourage overseas students from coming to our universities.
So what is the answer? This week, findings of a collaborative piece of research by Columbia University and the UCL Institute of Education/Birkbeck, University of London concluded that greater policy focus on further education colleges could help to widen access to higher education in England. The researchers backed the development of new "transfer agreements" to facilitate movement from vocational training into undergraduate study, and called for greater collaboration between FE colleges and highly selective universities.
These changes sound great in theory but in practice will be hard to achieve.
To the outside observer, it might seem that further education and higher education are two entirely separate systems. They are viewed very differently by society, covered (or not) in different ways by the media, have separate publications and historically have been overseen by different government departments. Yet if we are to meet the skills needs of the UK and give young people the best chance at a fulfilling career, that perception of two distinct systems must shift.
And the government has begun to realise the importance of this. Making it easier to progress from FE to HE is a key aim of the post-16 Skills Plan, and, in the last few years, we have seen a conscious effort made to create more cohesive links between the two.
Accepting more FE students could present a huge opportunity for universities to meet some of their own challenges. In the wake of a range of transformative policy and regulatory changes, our HE system is under unprecedented strain to improve on student outcomes and prove its value. The teaching excellence framework (TEF) purports to link universities’ ability to raise tuition fees to their teaching quality. A more effective link-up with FE can help universities meet the targets in their access agreements around widening participation, for example, or help them improve in areas such as student retention and progression.
We’re currently seeing greater focus on how universities can reach a more diverse pool of students. This week the Office for Fair Access highlighted the need for much greater progress on improving access to HE from under-represented groups. Considering students with technical qualifications would not only benefit the students themselves, but also go some way to helping universities fulfil their employability and retention targets.
Considerable work has been done to ensure that technical qualifications are seen as on a par with A levels by universities admissions teams, and we are seeing some higher education institutions collaborating with university technical colleges in delivering technical education, and recognising progression routes. However, many don’t seem to make the connection with FE in the same way and the numbers that cross from FE to HE remain relatively low.
There are multiple reasons for this, but one that is undoubtedly having a huge impact is the enormously complex nature of professional and technical education. There are a huge number of qualifications that seem to be constantly changing (thanks to incessant meddling by government) and even people in the FE sector struggle to keep up. This ever-changing feast has understandably been confusing and off-putting for universities. Achieving an effective link-up between FE and HE will require the FE sector to work hand-in-hand with university admissions staff to understand how technical qualifications fit into their world, and what value they bring.
The government’s move to streamline the professional and technical education system into T-levels should help to level the playing field and create greater parity between the two systems. But there will still be a real need for HE and FE to work together to break down the barriers that exist by forming relationships, collaborating and sharing knowledge.
One important way we can ease the process is by identifying examples of where such collaboration is already happening and learning the lessons from them. At City & Guilds we have seen some really positive examples of university admissions teams not only acknowledging our new technical qualifications but understanding the benefits they can bring to undergraduate courses. As the system faces radical change we need to talk about this more so that it becomes the norm.
Another area that would benefit both FE and HE is to get better at measuring their collective impact on the labour market so that we can demonstrate our power to close skills gaps and get young people into gainful employment. As cuts continue, it can only be in our collective best interests to demonstrate the value we bring.
Those of us in the FE world are well versed in constant policy and practical change. Universities are facing new structures and parameters too, and these will only be exacerbated by Brexit. I can understand if the instinct in the HE sector is to fall back on the familiar – but my hope is that instead it will embrace possibility and take the risk of working with the FE sector to develop excellence and innovation and expand opportunity.
Working collaboratively, we can ensure our post-school education offers is a truly dynamic force for skills development in the UK.
Alison Whittle is post-16 technical adviser at City & Guilds.