Today's Post-18 review report provides a ringing endorsement for the role that education can have in improving our society, economy and public life. Many of the first responses to the report have focused on the proposals to cut the university fee cap by 17% to £7,500 and to introduce both maintenance grants and a more directive teaching funding approach in higher education but the report has many important things to say about further education. The independent panel makes more than a dozen recommendations about the sector in a report that took them a year to complete, that was supported by a team of officials and that worked to a brief approved by the Prime Minister, Chancellor and Education Secretary. The report's recommendations were costed with the help of Treasury officials and are designed so that they could be implemented between 2020 and 2025.
At AoC we have always considered the Post-18 review an opportunity for a fresh long-term look. This was not just because Theresa May launched the review in Derby College's fine nineteeth century roundhouse but because the challenges over the next ten years will be big. We set these out in a paper "Towards 2030" which we published last summer after a three month public consultation with college leaders.
Here's a quick checklist of how the Post 18 review report measures up against that list of college priorities:
1. An upgraded higher technical route
Recommendations and implications
The Post-18 review makes a detailed case that higher technical education is the missing middle in the English system. The country's very small number of Level 4/5 students translates into persistent skills gaps and lost opportunities for those unable to progress directly to degree-level study. The panel set out a package of recommendations to address this including the development of a kitemarked set of Level 4 to 5 qualifications which should have the same tuition fee cap, student finance rules and teaching grant funding as degree level study. In addition the panel recommend additional support and capital funding to specific FE colleges to ensure they can build up this provision. The panel say little overall on regulation but suggest that OfS should oversee all provision at Level 4 and above.
There have been government promises of action on higher technical education in the past but this is a more coherent, evidence based set of proposals, while taking a more realistic view of the problems caused by the dominance of the degree route.
2. Reforms to higher education loans, fees and regulations
Recommendations and implications
A £7,500 fee cap, increased HE teaching grant budget linked to policy priorities, return of HE maintenance grants, removal of interest rates until students finish courses and an extra ten years of student loan repayments (40 not 30 years) add up to a major overhaul of HE student finance. Our suggestions covered endorsed some of these issues (for example the return of maintenance grants and longer repayment terms) but we also went further in suggesting more prioritisation of funding either via minimum entry thresholds or via student number controls. The review makes a balanced argument on how government should manage higher education funding (pages 92 to 104) but does also document the severe constraints on adult education (page 126) and apprenticeship funding (pages 150 to 154).
The review terms of reference required the independent panel to work within the existing fiscal envelope and, in effect, to avoid HE student number controls. The costings (page 204) show that they have pushed the envelope in terms of money but extra spending on level 2 to 5 education still depends on savings from removing funding for Year Zero courses and the student finance changes. A less constrained set of terms of reference might have allowed them to recommend a bigger post 18 budget overall to deal with a rising population and big economic challenges of the 2020s. Meanwhile the unrestricted recruitment at degree level compares oddly with the effective number controls in force for young apprentices employed by small companies and for adults wishing to take basic skill courses.
3. A new strategy for adult education
Recommendations and implications
The review recommends a U-turn on the 17.5% cut in funding for 18 year olds taking FE courses, the extension of the Level 2 and 3 entitlements to cover people of all ages and a new lifetime loan allowance (worth £30,000 in current money) at levels 4, 5 and 6 for adults without a degree. These are all issues we pushed on behalf of colleges in our "Towards 2030" paper. The review went further by suggesting issues we've raised in the past but did not mention this time, for example raising unit funding rates for economically valuable adult education courses, simplifying funding rules and providing three year budgets to assist planning
An official review that was understood to be about university fees has made a strong case for action on adult education and skills to reverse the consequences of more than a decade of neglect. The review describes the 45% real-terms cut in total spending on adult skills (ie adult education and apprenticeships) as "one of the most important statistics in this entire report and cannot be justified in terms of either economics or social equity" (page 119). We await to see whether the new prime minister and cabinet will address this set of issues in the next spending review and whether DFE has the capacity to take forward reforms in a complicated post 18 FE system involving not just funding agency and colleges but new devolved administrations, an overstretched apprenticeship market and thousands of other employer purchasers and training providers.
We have plenty of grading systems in further education. I'm most used to the three-part system used to assess college financial health. Without a lot of science but with 25 year's experience reading official reports on further education, I'd give this one two sets of outstanding grades (on higher technical education and adult education), a good on the higher education finance reforms and an outstanding overall. At a time when the entire English college sector has finances that require improvement and where the losers from this are people, communities and businesses, it remains to be seen whether our frankly inadequate political system is up to the challenge of taking this set of reforms forward. I'm pessimistic about lots but am cautiously optimistic about this one.