For the last few decades, every government has said that further education is crucial – but they don’t tend to do much about it.
Per-student funding has declined and the number of adult learners taking accredited courses has also fallen – by more than half for GCSE level courses since 2010/11. It has become something of a vicious circle – because they are underfunded, further education colleges struggle to offer courses which attract students or add real value to employers. Instead, more and more young people are encouraged to go to university – it might not be the best pathway for all of them, but universities can afford to spend more money on course delivery, and their students have better access to financial support.
One of the very small silver linings from the coronavirus pandemic seems to be a recognition from government that further education needs to be valued as part of recovery: Boris Johnson says that the distinction between further and higher education is ‘pointless and nonsensical’. He has announced that from April 2021 government will fund courses for people in their mid-20s and older who don’t yet have a qualification equivalent to A-level (there is already funding for younger people), if the courses provide skills that employers want.
This is a good start. We know that it’s tough to find a job if you have few qualifications, and that it’s harder when competition increases. Our own research here in London has shown that there is a wage premium compared to the rest of the UK for everyone except those with the lowest skills: they have all the costs of living in an expensive city and none of the benefits.
The problem is that many of the people who lose their jobs in this crisis will already have an A-level equivalent qualification. In London well over half of the population would be too qualified to get help from this scheme. Many people will have degrees or advanced vocational qualifications, but they will not be right for the jobs available. My history degree would be of little help in many of the fields we expect to grow in London: green manufacturing, healthcare for older people, or coding.
In addition, equivalising qualifications – so an A-level in Spanish is at the same level as a music grade 8 in piano or a diploma in health and social care – is good in that it shows the value of vocational courses. But it is not a very helpful way either to decide who should be allowed to take particular course or to assign funding. It would be deeply silly to deny someone the opportunity to train in social care or manufacturing because they once took a piano exam, or indeed a Spanish A-level. If the point is to develop the skills that employers need, then we need to offer opportunities to everyone who could benefit from them.
Claire Harding is Research Director at Centre for London.