“A target for the sake of a target [without] a purpose” is how Gavin Williamson recently chose to describe Tony Blair’s 1999 50% in higher education target.
It is Williamson’s focus on bringing higher education down a peg or two which risks causing damage to both the higher education sector and the recently announced further education plans altogether.
The plan, announced in early July which involves following a German-style further education system to restore the prestige of further education, is a noble one. The thought behind this was that a renewed emphasis on vocational skills would not only help aid economic growth but would also reach those in deindustrialised regions of the UK who have been historically ignored when it comes to post-16 education.
It is likely that higher education losses will become part of the fallout of these shifting priorities
Whilst more details about this will be released in a white paper in the autumn, the knowledge we have at the current time about how Williamson proposes to go about initiating this change is a cause for concern.
Williamson fears that there has been an “inbuilt snobbishness” for some time, that higher education is better than further education. Concern that higher education is not practical enough was also expressed, with Mr Williamson suggesting that universities often provide “qualifications for qualifications sake.”
If the Education Secretary’s repeated condemnation of higher education in his 9th July speech to the Social Market Foundation was anything to go by, it is likely that higher education losses will become part of the fallout of these shifting priorities.
“Cutting the proportion of young people accessing education” is simply not the way forward as Jo Grady, current general secretary of the University and College Union puts it. The belief that one thing must be compromised in order to see the benefits of something else is deeply flawed, especially in relation to higher and further education.
The Institute for Fiscal Studies has predicted that the higher education sector may face losses of between £3bn and £19bn next year alone due to Covid-19. The mentality that higher education has to suffer for further education to thrive will only mean that the government would be compounding the financial damage that universities are already set to face.
Whilst making higher education suffer for further education to thrive in a Covid-19 and soon to be post-Brexit Britain environment is irresponsible, there is also no logic involved in this.
Williamson does not seem to understand how nuanced higher education is. He seems to correlate university education to education which solely involves work that is not practical or technical.
Universities UK note, as seen in The Guardian, that 40% of university courses are in fact practical. The government is aware of this being that the Universities Minister recently announced an extra 9,000 additional university places for courses that will directly benefit the economy such as nursing and engineering.
The Education Secretary needs to separate his further education goals from his feelings about the flaws of higher education
Higher education therefore has a very important part to play in achieving Williamson’s ultimate goal of elevating technical and vocational learning. Yet, he is still choosing to stand by his over-simplified perception of what higher education is. Not only does Williamson’s new policy in this area risk deeply damaging the higher education sector, but he may also come into difficulty when it comes to delivering the further education promises themselves.
Williamson’s apparent commitment to continually condemn his believed shortcomings of higher education may become a distraction, blurring the ultimate aim of restoring further education. This would mean he could say goodbye to having any sort of positive impact on the economy or those in “left-behind towns and regions” where the further education college is often the “beating heart” of the community.
The Education Secretary needs to separate his further education goals from his feelings about the flaws of higher education if he is to retain the focus needed to deliver his goals.
There also needs to be a greater appreciation of the various aspirations and the complexity of the historically deindustrialised regions that he is trying to help.
Pigeonholing individuals in these regions into further education positions will only damage the aspirations of those that do and have always wanted to pursue academic higher education courses.
Whilst those who wish to pursue further education in these regions should be encouraged to do so, by pushing further education too much, as Williamson may, a large number of people will then feel alienated. Fueling the stereotype that people in poorer regions of the UK should pursue further education and nothing else could be extremely harmful.
Williamson’s desire to promote further education and target the UK’s deindustrialised regions is obviously understandable bearing in mind that further education has been snubbed for so long. Covid-19 has also raised awareness about the need to look out for society’s most disadvantaged as well as the need to stimulate the economy, with vocational courses being a key feeder for jobs that can stimulate the economy most quickly.
Policy in this area desperately needs to be revised
However, the substance behind these policy pledges needs to be revised. This would not only save the higher education sector from further losses, but would also ensure that Williamson achieves exactly what he wants to achieve- ensuring further education really does undergo an elevation and those in deindustrialised regions of all ambitions really do feel heard, no matter if they want to pursue further or higher education.
It is a focused policy that combines an understanding of the nuance of both the education sector and the regions of the UK that Williamson wants to target, that is missing.
Policy in this area desperately needs to be revised if we are to have any hope of a genuinely improved education system in the future.
Vanessa Wilson, Chief Executive of University Alliance says that the government should not “emphasise a false divide between the two [further and higher education but] should build a world-class ecosystem for” both.
There is a space for both higher and further education in this country. Only when Mr Williamson understands how both intersect, will he be on the way to truly reinstating the value of further education in a way that doesn’t damage sectors and also takes into account the complex needs of all individuals.