Tory ‘rebalancing’ from HE to FE a ‘policy and political project’

Director of Onward thinktank says polling showing public opposition to university expansion justifies shift in emphasis

August 20, 2019
Boris Johnson in tug of war
Source: Reuters

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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Reader's comments (5)

This could well be the case and I am in favour of such a change in focus. The UK already has enough graduates with degrees from Russell Group and other Universities to last a generation. Our need now is for more highly qualified young people with higher and degree apprenticeships that cost the tax payer and students much less in sectors of high job demand such as Cyber Security, Data Mining and AI. Many leading Universities are generally failing to keep sufficiently up to date with modern technology and business requirements. Within the FE sector, Government must ensure that private sector providers are put on the same playing field as FE Colleges by giving them equivalent capital grants for premises, machinery and equipment. It must also improve Supervision, Governance and Financial Skills in FE Colleges. There have been too many financial frauds and failures and more are yet to come unless the quality of leadership is massively improved.
Where’s the evidence that there are too many graduates, all willing to do manual labour? This is more nostalgia- fuelled baloney that sadly has gained currency amongst discontented populists of both right and left.
“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." Or more honestly, people who trained vocationally via a real apprenticeship and having seen previous Tory and Nu-Labia (ref "Max-Headroom" quote) politicians sell off the countries manufacturing and critical infrastructure they trained to work in, resulting in mass redundancies means they don't trust either. Further dismantling, often at the behest of the EU (TEFU articles 101 and 102) means they don't trust the EU either. The latest Corbynista 'graduate' Labour party iteration no longer represents the majority of 'working class' people, preferring to import fresh voters in the hope they will remain loyal for at least 2 generations. That Nu-Labia used the Universities to effectively reduce the NEET's statistics, claiming improved 'social mobility' would result has proven useful for politicians of all stripes, but ineffective at best for improving 'social mobility' for the majority. Ultimately the country needs carpenters, electricians, plumbers and other 'trades' people, stripping such skilled people from elsewhere isn't sustainable and they money they earn is often 'sent home' not spent in the UK, for whom an expensive and wasteful University (indoctrination) education is worse than pointless, even the University sector has to pay a 'trades' premium to recruit essential trades. Boris may play the clown, but he's far more aware of the countries needs than most, and that's whats frightening the left , he may just be what the country and it's hard pressed oft ignored working class need, along with BREXIT.
Do I have to be a right wing anti-intellectual little Englander to agree with the imbalance pointed out by Tanner?
Not at all. I think there are many frustrated academics like me who agree. Many of the things that are trying about the job now arise because of a mismatch between student expectations and degree level study. It would be much better to offer a wider range of high-quality options that are seen as positive choices. It may well be that the degree and other apprenticeships will help.