Two plus two could equal five for further education

Offering two-year programmes at FE colleges as part of four-year degrees could redress the UK’s spending bias in favour of HE, says Geoff Mason

December 6, 2019
2 + 2 = 5
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The Conservative manifesto may have kicked the Augar Review of Post-18 Education and Funding into the long grass for the time being, but one of the strongest elements in the report – its call for the revitalisation of further education – is nonetheless making some impact on pre-election policy announcements.

First, higher spending to upgrade the FE college estate is one of the few new spending commitments to post-secondary education in the Conservative manifesto (although nothing is said about how participation in FE courses might be increased at the same time). Second, Augar’s critique of the neglect of FE in recent years is implicit in the Labour Party’s plans for further and adult education, and even to some extent in the Liberal Democrats’ plans for “Skills Wallets”, designed to encourage adult participation in learning.

The Augar report not only called for substantial reinvestment in FE college resources but also recommended that full funding for Level 2 and 3 courses (GCSE and A levels, or equivalents) in FE should be available for learners of all ages, whether in employment or not – thus abolishing tuition fees currently charged at Level 3 for adults in FE aged 24 or over.

However, at Levels 4 and 5 – covering qualifications such as Higher National Certificates and Diplomas and foundation degrees, which overlap to some extent with the first two years of higher education – the Augar recommendations rely on extending the student loan facilities available at Level 6 (bachelor’s degree courses) to cover tuition fees charged for intermediate-level vocational courses.

These fees are not negligible – ranging up to £7,000 per year in FE colleges – and research evidence suggests that providing loans at Levels 4 and 5 will not entice borrowers on anywhere near the Level 6 scale; indeed, as much as 58 per cent of the funding allocated to Advanced Learner Loans for FE students between 2013 and 2017 was simply not spent.

This is where the FE component of Labour’s proposed National Education Service lends real weight to Augar’s aspirations for a revitalised FE sector. Labour’s plans call for “[replacement of] Advanced Learner Loans and upfront course fees with direct funding, making FE courses free at the point of use”, which would cover all vocational courses up to Level 5.

Where Labour falls short in its effort to reduce the current bias in public spending in favour of HE is its renewed promise to abolish tuition fees for Level 6 courses as well. While Labour could ill afford to renege on its 2017 promise to abolish tuition fees, it needs to give considerably more thought to ways in which the balance of education funding could be shifted towards FE.

For example, there could be increased provision of “two plus two” courses, whereby two years of study for foundation degrees or higher national awards at FE colleges are followed – not necessarily immediately – by two years’ study to complete bachelor’s degrees at an associated university. Incentives could be put in place to encourage more students to use their Level 4 and 5 qualifications to look for employment in technician-level jobs and later on to seek support from their employers to study for degrees.

The FE component of Labour’s National Education Service should also encourage more adults, whether in or out of employment, to take up new learning opportunities in subjects of general interest, as well as work-related areas. Continuing adult learning of this kind has fallen sharply in recent years, reducing the wider social and economic benefits that are known to arise from continuing education and training. 

These issues are also at the heart of the Liberal Democrats’ proposal for Skills Wallets, whereby every adult in England would receive £10,000 to spend on approved courses, divided between a first instalment of £4,000 at age 25, another £3,000 at age 40 and a final £3,000 at age 55.

Although well intentioned, this proposal presents a number of practical problems, including its inflexible age restrictions and its similarity to New Labour’s Individual Learning Accounts scheme, which had to be closed owing to a high incidence of fraudulent claims by learning providers. In addition, it is hard to predict what the future costs of approved courses will be, so it would be much easier to encourage adult participation in those courses simply by making them free at the point of entry.

And while universities might not like to hear this, one way to pay for that would be to redirect some funding from the budget for higher education.

Geoff Mason is visiting professor at the UCL Institute of Education. Details of relevant data and information sources are available in LLAKES Research Paper No. 66.

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