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  • Writer's pictureAndy Forbes

The Association of Colleges goes 100% tertiary

You can't get better than 100%, and the Association of Colleges have gone for the maximum in their latest policy paper, 100% opportunity: the case for a tertiary education system. It's a bold clarion call for radical change in England's post-16 education system.

The AoC, which represents almost all England's further education and sixth form colleges, has been a member of the Lifelong Education Institute since its inception, and we have benefitted greatly from their expertise, which is derived from their ability to distil information and opinion from across a wide and diverse sector. While it's therefore not surprising that their key policy recommendations align closely with ours, it's heartening that they are based on a broad consensus of opinion from college leaders and supported by an impressive evidence base.

It's particularly refreshing to read such a clear and unequivocal call for England to move to a tertiary education system, rather than the overly complex and fragmented jigsaw of funding and quality quangos we are currently saddled with. Most FE colleges deliver higher education; an increasing proportion of universities are moving rapidly towards a place-based strategy. Through devolved authorities like London and Manchester and through the network of employer bodies coordinating Local Skills Improvement Plans, FE and HE are working together more closely than ever before. Amongst the LEI membership we have all four of the universities that have already gone down the road of implementing FE/HE mergers, despite the formidable technical difficulties.

Up and down the country, on the ground and in practice, England is going tertiary.

However, this is to a large extent despite policy rather than because of it. Any colleges or universities seeking to embrace a tertiary education strategy are confronted with a daunting regulatory and funding landscape that is made up of a strange spaghetti of disconnected and overlapping strands. This not only generates some of the most complex bureaucracy imaginable but means that institutions have to spend far too much time and money navigating multiple administrative requirements.

So yes, please to a tertiary system. It would have so many benefits, especially, as the document puts it, in creating "a post-18 system which takes a whole-system approach and fosters a new lifelong learning culture".

This would be a big step forward, but there's no doubt it's a big task. It will take strong and sustained political will, necessitate the passage of primary legislation, involve years of restructuring existing quangos, and require very careful planning to get the balance right between responsibilities at national and devolved levels.

The good news is that Wales is already pioneering a tertiary strategy, so there are lessons to be learned from real-life practice, although the Welsh initiative is in its early stages. In addition, many of the recommendations are similar to proposals already being considered by both the main political parties, so we're not starting from a blank sheet. The AoC's call for a "national social partnership body" to oversee the new system sounds very much like the Skills England idea Labour have already floated, as does the proposed reform of the apprenticeship levy. The call for a review of the curriculum for 16–18-year-olds to make it broader and more inclusive builds on the principles behind the Conservative plan for an Advanced British Standard qualification to replace A-levels, albeit with much less emphasis on completely reconstructing the qualification framework (thank goodness!) and more emphasis on building on current good practice.

While system change is by its nature a long-term process, there are some relatively inexpensive FE "quick wins" amongst the report' recommendations. Reintroducing the option for 14–16-year-olds to start vocational courses in colleges, for example, and ending the poorly-focused and costly policy of compulsory English and maths GCSE resits. Closing the 9% pay gap between college lecturers and school teachers would cost less than £450m a year and would do more than anything else to revive technical and professional education delivery, currently hampered by chronic staffing shortages, as well as reducing the amount of management time spent on protracted local pay disputes. Granting FE colleges the same exemption from VAT as schools would instantly improve their finances.

There is, of course, one big elephant in the tertiary education room – the steadily-deteriorating state of HE finances. The danger is that many universities will be too preoccupied with financial survival to have much of an appetite for tertiary partnership. As a body representing the FE sector, the AoC can say little or nothing about this, beyond calling for universities to be "incentivised" for working more closely with colleges. The difficulty for all of us is that there are no easy answers to the drop in the value of student fees and none of the political parties are in any hurry to pin themselves to a specific solution.

There is one quick win available to an incoming government. Reversing – as far and as fast as possible – the restrictions being put on the recruitment of international students would immediately shore up the finances of most universities. It makes no sense for overseas students to be included in the government's net migration targets because the vast majority return home after completing their studies. Stop characterising foreign students as immigrants, take them out of the policy targets, and reopen all the former visa routes.

Returning to a positive policy on international student recruitment and adding in some tangible incentives for HEIs to get involved in place-based skills strategies, would smooth the path for the greater collaboration between FE and HE the AoC is rightly calling for.

The LEI is pleased to endorse and support this timely report. Apart from anything else, it's a good read – concise, clear, and well-presented – and full of useful facts and figures. From our perspective, it puts the spotlight on two of our favourite adjectives – "tertiary" and "lifelong". If we're to get anywhere near the AoC's vision of 100% opportunity, we need both these words to be baked into an education system fit for the 21st century.


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