Boris Johnson’s Conservative government will seek to “rebalance” attention and resources away from higher education to further and vocational education in England, a shift that is a “policy project as well as a political one”, according to the director of an increasingly influential thinktank.
Since taking office last month, the new prime minister has said further education and skills “is going to be a priority for this government”, and has appointed an education secretary, Gavin Williamson, who bills himself as the first to “personally take charge of further education and skills”.
With Mr Johnson also signalling in his wider policy approach that he wants to target working-class Leave voters in previously Labour constituencies, there may be an element of electoral strategy behind this rhetoric.
The centre-right thinktank Onward – which has previously analysed graduate earnings data to spotlight what it terms “low value university degrees” – this month published public polling that it said showed a “shift away from a post-war freedom consensus to a post-Brexit consensus” shaped by “security” and a sense of “belonging”. One of the survey questions asked whether “more people going to university and fewer gaining technical qualifications has been a bad thing for the country overall”, with 66 per cent of respondents saying it had.
Will Tanner, director of Onward and a former adviser at No 10 and the Home Office, said: “What a…number of people at the new top table in government think is that for a long time we’ve focused on the 50 per cent of people who go to university, and not enough focus has been given to the other 50 per cent.
“All of the signals and everything we are hearing from government is very much that [the other 50 per cent] is where government wants to deploy most of its energies and potentially quite a lot of resources as well.”
Is this shift driven by the new Tory electoral strategy?
“To some extent, as we’ve shown in our polling, the Conservative Party is now very much the party of the apprentices and people who do A levels and below, and has lost most of the graduate vote to Labour and the Lib Dems,” said Mr Tanner. “And so the party does have a fundamentally different constituency to the one it had even a few years ago.”
But Mr Tanner also highlighted “the fact that education level was so correlated with the Leave vote” in the Brexit referendum.
He continued: “There is a significant portion of people who feel pretty dissatisfied with the way in which the world is working, and they are much more likely to have been in the technical education system rather than HE. What can the government do to help those people and give them better life chances? That seems to me to be quite an important policy project as well as a political one.”
Mr Tanner described Mr Williamson as “much more in tune with the vocational, FE sector”, and his appointment with a brief including further education and skills as “a great signal the government is taking it [that brief] seriously”.
He added of the emphasis on vocational education: “I suspect this will be something driven pretty heavily from No 10.”
Mr Tanner said Onward’s polling “tells the government they should think about rebalancing away from HE towards FE, and should recognise that for lots and lots of people in society, university is not necessarily the right thing and might have an actively harmful impact on towns and cities where people are leaving to go to university…and that deprives people of some of that sense of belonging that we talk about”.
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