I wrote in a recent blog post about one of the diving lines in Britain being between the 50ish percent of the population who now go on to higher education, and those who don’t. I wondered how it must feel to see a rising proportion of your peers go on to academic study and all that entails. And considered the impact this has on our political outlook, as highlighted in Maria Sobolewska and Rob Ford’s new book, Brexitland. In short, the big split now is broadly between urban, degree educated voters (Remain) and those in rural and less affluent areas without higher education (Leave).
What I didn’t realise when writing my previous post was just how stark the collapse in further education has been in the last few years since the rise in higher education student numbers. The total number of people studying in further education has fallen by more than two thirds in the last fifteen years. The result is that the total number of people continuing in education beyond school years has not increased, as is widely believed, but fallen by a third.
Data sources: https://www.hesa.ac.uk/ and https://gov.uk
This makes the dividing line between those with and without degrees even more stark. It is no wonder that people feel animosity towards the wealthy centre and cities, populated by those who have benefited most from our national educational infrastructure.
The skills gap
This is a situation that cannot sustain for so many reasons. For a start, the skills that FE colleges equip people with are incredibly important to our economy. And as you can see from the chart above, apprenticeships are not filling the gap. As the economy starts to pick up, employers are complaining about skills shortages in IT and technology, hospitality and events. The construction workforce is ageing fast. According to the 2011 census, more than 30% of those in the key trades were over 50. And we are estimated to have less than half the workforce we need to meet government house-building targets. Brexit is unlikely to improve this situation.
These industries don’t just need people, they need skilled, trained people. And people are not getting the training they need on the job, according to the CIPD.
Reading the rewards
As well as the macro, there is a more personal impact of the decline of further education. Education is one of the best predictors of overall life outcomes. It is the foundation of both a more secure career and a more secure sense of self.
Quite beyond the career value, learning new skills is one of the most rewarding things we can do. It’s why I prize hobbies so highly: they are your opportunity to stretch your mind in new and unexpected directions.
Skills for Jobs
I confess that the ‘Skills for Jobs’ white paper released in January 2021 rather passed me by. I’m not sure if this is a sign of the limited attention I have paid to the FE sector, or whether there was relatively little noise made about the paper outside of the sector itself. But though the paper makes some of the right noises, what investment it does promise has to be put into context: funding per pupil for further education has fallen 12% since 2010, and funding for adult education has halved, according to the IFS.
Education for life
We have an enormous distance to travel to make up for the long term decline of further education, particularly for adults. Imagine if we had a further education sector that was world class, like our universities. Imagine local colleges as community resources where people of all ages could go to learn skills, to advance their career or for pure self-development. Imagine them as a venue for sports and shared hobbies. Imagine high quality teachers sharing their knowledge with learners face to face, and with the world through digital platforms. FE colleges could be the perfect venue to incubate new businesses, and share community resources, like maker spaces.
We need more community institutions like this, not just to tackle the economic challenges we face but to address issues of cohesion, loneliness, and mental decline in our ageing population. Delivering on anything like this will require long term investment – much more than has been committed. Not just to finance the resources themselves but to build a true culture of life long learning, to encourage people of all ages and backgrounds to use these resources.
That will require a lot of investment, but also a vision that goes well beyond skills for jobs.