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The curious incident of Boris Johnson in the night-time

Image: WorldSkills UK [CC BY 2.0], via Flickr

Gordon Marsden argues for a more modern and integrated approach to skills

Aficionados of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle may remember the Sherlock Holmes episode in which his celebrated sleuth drew the attention of Scotland Yard’s Inspector Gregory to “the curious incident of the dog in the night-time”. When the detective replies: “The dog did nothing,” Holmes’s retorts: “That was the curious incident.”

That was the image that came into my mind as I re-examined the government’s proposals for what it has called a “major expansion of post-18 education and training to level up” for adult learners, embellished in typical rumbustious fashion by the prime minister, Boris Johnson, in his speech at a college in Exeter on Tuesday.

The proposals are wrapped around the central spine of a Lifetime Skills Guarantee, which we’re told will give adults without an A-level or equivalent qualification the offer of “a free, fully funded college course, providing them with skills valued by employers and the opportunity to study at a time and location that suits them”.

Drilling into the detail of that raises more questions than answers but, to be fair, there are genuinely interesting references in the proposals concerning higher education—musings about making higher education loans more flexible to facilitate lifelong learning, allowing the transfer of credits between colleges and universities, enabling part-time study, and beefing up and expanding higher technical qualifications.

The latter policy draws on nearly a decade old arguments from Lord Sainsbury and others, as well as on the Augar report, carried out 16 months ago, while the language of credit transfer and accumulation and the Lifetime Skills Guarantee echo—in a very diluted way—the proposals for a far more radical “right to learn”, proposed by the Lifelong Learning Commission, which I co-ordinated and from which I presented recommendations to the Labour Party last November.

But that’s about it in terms of concrete issues to engage the university world, which is why—on learning that all the proposals will be fleshed out in a further education white paper later this year—the image of higher education as a muted canine in the government’s plans came into my mind.

The international picture

I have been arguing for years that, in the digital and online world of the 21st century we all now inhabit, the spheres of further education, higher education and skills are increasingly interlinked and fold into each other. The UK’s higher education counterparts and competitors, and their governments, on the international stage—from North America through the Middle East and into south-east Asia—recognise this and are putting this into practice in their research, teaching and student recruitment programmes.

The aftershocks of the pandemic and the need urgently, because of social distancing, to find alternatives to face-to-face communications, with teaching and learning carried out via digital platforms such as Zoom and others, has turbocharged that process. The global threat of a second wave of the coronavirus will only accelerate integration further.

And yet our government still seems studiously wedded to a process that entrenches those 20th century silos that others are abandoning.

The huge irony of its proposals this week is that they suggest fragments of understanding that we are in a blending and blended 21st century world of education. But the suggested process for delivery—boxing the process off into a circumscribed further education white paper—risks blotting out that understanding. The government is undercutting the logic of its own rhetoric by marginalising higher education in universities, many of which have begun to break out of the old silos by embracing degree apprenticeships—not that these don’t carry their own problems.

Denigration of higher education

Add to that a summer when there seemed to be a drip, drip denigration of the higher education sector in some quarters of government, with veiled threats about low-value courses from the universities minister, Michelle Donelan—without much objective evidence—and the fiasco of the A-level process, in which dithering and changes of tack from ministers echoed conflicting messages over the coronavirus, causing huge problems for universities and would-be students.

This, coupled with conflicting and changing ministerial advice on face-to-face and online teaching, has led to the nemesis we have seen in recent days—despite diligent and exhaustive efforts by student unions and most university authorities to protect both health and campus teaching—of some students being put into a de facto lockdown in their accommodation and halls of residence.

It all comes on top of continuing worries about the potential impact of a no-deal Brexit on research, teaching and student numbers, augmented by fears about Chinese and other international student numbers drying up because of the pandemic. It is no way for the government to run and support the university sector, which will remain crucial economically both in terms of overseas earnings despite the present upheavals and will be a crucial partner in assisting the economic and social recovery that needs to come in the communities universities work in—and with.

The Lifelong Learning Commission, which Labour endorsed, recognised all those issues last November in its roadmap to a truly integrated system. It should not be a question of further being pitted against higher education in government games around so-called “red wall” seats or of Treasury civil servants engaging in crude funding models that rob higher education‘s Peter to pay further education’s Paul. We need to support both sectors equally to recover from the loss of a million adult learners in the past decade and to incentivise them to co-operate at local and regional levels, as Bob Kerslake’s UK2070 Commission has suggested.

Loans alone—even lifelong learning ones—won’t do the business, which is why the LLCOM’s commitment to a publicly- funded local right to learn through life, backed up by the equivalent of six years publicly funded credits at levels 4 and above, is so much more robust than what the government proposed this week.

As for the suggestions about more flexible loans, the devil is most definitely in the detail. Ministers have been silent on the cost of these loans and the continued inexcusably high student loan interest rates—made more inexcusable by all the current restrictions on a campus experience.

We know from the poor take-up by adult learners since 2013 of the advanced learner loans for further education, that older would-be learners are particularly resistant to debt. Might the drop-out rate be high, even once they have enrolled? And the overall figure for the RAB charge—the proportion of student loans given out during a financial year that the government expects students will never pay back—is already hovering around the 50 per cent mark, with a good chance write-offs could go even higher, given a weak graduate labour market caused by the pandemic.

Modest solutions

There are a number of quick initiatives of modest nature and cost that might begin to help match demand to supply. The government could expand on the University of Cambridge’s innovative £1 million bursary scheme for adult learners, by match funding similar ones targeted at universities and higher education institutions with modest resources in disadvantaged areas.

It could give financial incentives to post-92 universities forced to close because of austerity cuts to enable satellite campuses in areas of poor higher education take up, such as Crewe and Hastings. They could open these campuses in conjunction with local further education colleges and other local stakeholders. And the government could trial lifelong learning grants for distance and part-time adult learners on a pilot basis, as the LLCOM considered and as Scotland and Wales are already engaging with.

Such organic, locally based ways of doing things, involving higher education institutions and their stakeholders, is a much better model for facing current challenges than simply reverting to top-down initiatives micromanaged from Whitehall, which are no longer relevant to the world we live in today.

Gordon Marsden was shadow minister for higher, further education and skills in the last parliament