After spending years, perhaps decades, in the policy shadows, the Further Education (FE) sector in England is finally attracting the attention of policymakers. Last year, the ‘Augar Review’ of post-18 education declared that FE colleges “are an essential part of the national educational infrastructure and should play a core role in the delivery of higher technical and intermediate level training.” The Conservative Party election manifesto in 2019 subsequently promised significant investment in FE colleges (FECs). More recently, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson stated that “further education is central to our mission of levelling up the nation”, adding that colleges are “the beating hearts of so many of our towns.” He also set out the government’s desire to bring about “a wholesale rebalancing towards further and technical education” based on “a comprehensive plan to change the fundamentals of England’s further education landscape, inspired by the best models from around the world.”
These commitments are welcome and important. The question now is how they will be delivered in practice. This report outlines a package of reforms that aims to ensure the FE sector is:
- Respected: stakeholders from across the education system, from schools up to universities, as well as the general public should recognise and cherish the value of FE to them and to society as a whole.
- Ambitious: high-quality teaching and learning and clear progression pathways should be central to what FE offers learners at a local and national level.
- Responsive: learners and employers should be confident that the FE sector is willing to listen to, and respond to, their needs and interests.
- Stable: colleges deserve to operate in an environment that provides certainty and security, both politically and financially.
A clearer role and status for FE colleges
Colleges in England have an immensely varied student body including 1.4 million adults and over 500,000 16 to 18-year-olds. They have also become involved in a huge range of activities, offering everything from basic skills courses in literacy and numeracy and English language provision up to Bachelor’s degrees and apprenticeships. As the Augar Review noted, “FECs have become providers of everything to everyone.” Far from viewing this as a strength, the Augar Review was concerned that colleges have “an extremely broad focus, with no single defining purpose and with no consistent identity nationally”.
This report argues that the only way the FE sector will become a respected and ambitious choice for young people and adults is by arranging itself in such a way that there is complete clarity about what it can offer learners. Bundling every student and course under the single banner of a ‘college’ will never deliver this goal. It is therefore proposed that FECs should be required to break their different functions into separate institutions that have their own brand and identity. While this will not necessarily mean creating different legal entities, it is essential that provision is ring-fenced within the most appropriate part of each college to create a clear separation of duties as well as greater clarity for learners and employers.
RECOMMENDATION 1: FE colleges should be split into separate institutions that reflect their distinctive purposes for different groups of learners:
- Community Colleges – basic skills courses, community learning and other entry level programmes (including ESOL)
- Sixth Form Colleges – A-levels and other classroom-based Level 2 and 3 courses
- Technology Colleges – vocational and technical training (including apprenticeships) up to Levels 4 and 5
The terms ‘Community College’ and ‘Technology College’ should be converted into protected titles, similar to the status given to the term ‘university’.
These three types of institutions will support learners with different profiles. For example, learners at a Community College are more likely to have low prior achievement and be further from the labour market, whereas those starting a course at a Technology College are aiming for progression into skilled work or studying at higher levels. Consequently, the different institutions will need to be part of an accountability system that reflects their core mission and purpose such as providing an academic education or work-related training.
RECOMMENDATION 2: The performance of each institution within a college should be judged in relation to their core function:
- Community Colleges: the number of learners who start and complete their courses
- Sixth Form Colleges: the progress and achievement of learners in each subject
- Technology Colleges: the proportion of learners who progress into employment or further study
To promote clarity within the education system, other institutions will also need to adjust their provision. At present, colleges can deliver everything from A-levels to apprenticeships, while schools have been allowed to offer the new ‘T-level’ technical qualifications that commenced delivery this month. This situation is likely to confuse learners, parents and politicians alike and it prevents colleges from acquiring a distinct identity.
RECOMMENDATION 3: FE colleges that wish to offer A-levels should be required to convert their academic 16-19 provision into a Sixth Form College. In addition, schools and Sixth Form Colleges should be prohibited from offering the new ‘T-levels’ starting in September 2020, as these qualifications should be reserved for Technology Colleges.
Introducing a ‘partnerships’ model for FE
The Augar Review believed that the government’s goal should be delivering “a national network of collaborative FECs that provide high quality technical and professional education”, but it recognised that “access to high quality FE college provision is not uniform across England and access to specialist higher technical provision is patchy.” The Review’s solution was that “the government should actively promote partnerships, group structures, and specialisation” within the FE sector and encouraged ministers “to be much more robust in using the levers it has” to reshape FE across the country. What’s more, the Augar Review was sceptical about the market-based approach to FE that has dominated political thinking for many years, and frequently noted the drawbacks of the excessive competition between colleges that has become commonplace in some areas. Albeit with several notable exceptions, many colleges have responded entirely rationally to this competitive environment by focusing more on their own interests than on the interests of their community and local economy. To unwind this historical fixation with competition rather than collaboration, more emphasis needs to be placed on a strategic ‘systems-based’ approach to the FE sector if the ambitions described by the Augar Review and recently echoed by government ministers are to be fulfilled.
RECOMMENDATION 4: In each area of the country – defined by Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) or, where applicable, Mayoral Combined Authorities (MCAs) – a new ‘FE Director’ should be appointed by the sector as the representative for all the colleges within their geographical area. The FE Director (FED) will act as the convener and ambassador for their local FE institutions on both strategic and financial issues.
Having individual colleges making decisions about their institutions in isolation from other colleges is no longer a sustainable model. Partnerships and group structures will therefore be a critical component of this new collaborative agenda, as the Augar Review recognised, so it is necessary to put in place a series of ‘anchors’ in the FE sector around which these partnerships and groups will emerge. Tentative progress has been made by the government in generating more collaboration through mechanisms such as the College Collaboration Fund (CCF). This initiative is well-intentioned yet it does not have the resources needed to deliver partnerships and groups at scale, so the government will need to be bolder in its determination to promote partnerships and groups as this is the only viable route to a stable and sustainable FE sector.
RECOMMENDATION 5: For both of the financial years starting 2021 and 2022, the College Collaboration Fund (CCF) should continue and have its resources quadrupled to £20 million. The explicit goal of the CCF will be to promote group structures among colleges within each LEP / MCA, particularly for the smallest institutions. Applications for the CCF will only be open to the new FEDs rather than individual institutions.
Although it is hoped that schemes such as the CCF will promote more effective partnerships and group structures, the government should be willing to intervene directly if colleges prove reticent to work more closely with each other. In line with the Augar Review’s call for the government to be more robust in using the levers it has to reshape the FE sector, this report suggests that the Department for Education (DfE) considers introducing a ‘Minimum College Capacity’ requirement for attracting government funding. This approach would send a clear and unambiguous message to FECs that they are stronger working together as larger groups than they are operating as individual (and often) small institutions. Rather than being some form of punitive action, setting a ‘Minimum College Capacity’ would be an excellent opportunity for colleges to rethink their local footprint and how they can best structure themselves. In this context, smaller institutions could merge with larger ones or they could join a formal group structure in their local area. Either way, the result is a more sustainable and collaborative sector.
RECOMMENDATION 6: Should insufficient progress be made in promoting group structures among colleges, the Department for Education should consider introducing a ‘Minimum College Capacity’ requirement that would prevent colleges below a certain size from accessing government funding directly.
Using a more strategic approach to funding
The Augar Review recognised that, while the overall amount of money invested in FE was certainly an issue, the way in which the available funding was allocated to colleges was also generating problems. For example, ‘single year’ funding allocations put colleges under enormous pressure to spend their allocations as quickly as possible with little time to consider strategic investments or long-term objectives. This prevents colleges from responding effectively to the needs of their local community or employers.
RECOMMENDATION 7: The single-year funding allocations for the Adult Education Budget should be replaced by a 3-year funding cycle for the FE sector. The Department for Education will set out the legal funding entitlements for learners at the beginning of each cycle.
Furthermore, the Augar Review was concerned about the duplication of courses and subjects across nearby colleges because it meant that they were “competing for learners in an inefficient and very unproductive way”. To address this, it is vital that the FE sector moves towards collective decision-making across colleges and college groups. To that end, each FED will have the formal responsibility for working with their local colleges to map out the available provision across their geographical area and make decisions regarding what types of provision are required, and where. This exercise will include understanding employer needs, identifying areas of low educational attainment, assessing travel-to-learn distances and analysing the spread of provision in terms of subjects and courses across different institutions. After collating this information, FEDs will then need to decide how and where to focus Community Colleges, Sixth Form Colleges and Technology Colleges to meet the needs of their local communities and employers. The FED will also be well placed to oversee the potential reduction or removal of courses within some FECs, as rationalisation is precisely the kind of decision that individual colleges can be either unable or willing to make by themselves.
RECOMMENDATION 8: With colleges now operating in groups and partnerships, the FEDs will be tasked with mapping and subsequently arranging provision across their Community Colleges, Sixth Form Colleges and Technology Colleges in line with local social and economic needs as well as eliminating duplication of courses and promoting specialisation. This includes every FED having the ability to determine how the AEB is distributed among colleges.
Providing additional investment for FE
The Augar Review was critical of the recent level of investment from government in FECs, complaining that “the FE college estate is in poor condition” and has “no resource to invest in high-cost, yet high value provision”. Moreover, the cuts in capital funding from government have meant that “many FECs are unable to fund maintenance, let alone undertake significant new investment” and find themselves in a “parlous financial condition”. What little capital funding is made available by government for local areas is not even reserved for colleges because they must compete against other local projects including transport, regeneration, flood defences and digital infrastructure. Recent initiatives such as ‘Institutes of Technology’ (IoTs), which are intended to be prestigious institutions created by existing FE and HE providers with leading employers to meet their technical skill needs, have signalled the government’s intention to unwind the historical underinvestment in the FE sector. Nonetheless, the government must go much further with its future funding commitments if it wishes to build a national network of high-performing colleges.
RECOMMENDATION 9: A dedicated capital investment in FE colleges from government of £1.5 billion should be delivered over the duration this Parliament. This must come in the form of a ringfenced capital budget for FE that sits outside of the Local Growth Fund. The funding will be allocated via FEDs working in partnership with local colleges to determine their requirements for both maintenance and new equipment or facilities.
Building again on the new partnerships model for FE, IoTs are a welcome sign of commitment from government but they need to be more closely aligned with local needs. It would be wrong for a situation to develop in which a college or university succeeded with a bid to run an IoT even when it was not the most beneficial project for their local economy relative to other bidders. If IoTs are to become a valued and respected brand within the overall skills ecosystem, they must switch from being a top-down initiative to a bottom-up process that funds the most appropriate and transformative projects in each local area.
RECOMMENDATION 10: Institutes of Technology should be established in every MCA / LEP area so that all learners have access to higher-level technical education within reasonable distance. The operators of these Institutes, which function as a partnership between FE and HE, should be chosen by FEDs in line with local economic needs (e.g. Local Industrial Strategies) as well as other government initiatives such as R&D spending.
Alongside a new injection of capital funding for colleges, it is also necessary to increase their revenue funding. Total expenditure on 16-19 education fell from £6.39 billion in 2010-11 to £5.68 billion in 2017-18, while expenditure on 16-19 education in colleges fell by 10 per cent in cash terms and 20 per cent in real terms over this period. With 16-19 provision in FECs now provided through a dedicated Sixth Form College or Technology College, financial stability will be important for establishing their role and status within each local community. This report recommends that the ‘base rate’ for 16-19 funding of £4,188 is therefore increased every year over the coming Parliament, reaching £5,000 per student per year by 2024-25.
RECOMMENDATION 11: The ‘base rate’ of funding for 16 to 19-year-olds should be increased by approximately £200 (4%) per student in every year of this Parliament to improve teaching and learning as well as the staff salaries available in colleges.
Promoting high-quality courses
Making higher-level technical qualifications more accessible and more relevant has quickly become a priority. In advance of the FE White Paper this autumn, the government has announced that from 2022, higher technical qualifications will receive a new ‘quality mark’ from the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education (IFATE) – a government agency – to identify “those qualifications which fit in with the knowledge, skills and behaviours that employers need.” However, using civil servants to oversee the approval or rejection of qualifications does not fit well with calls for the system to be more responsive. It will almost inevitably create a bureaucratic mechanism for approving qualifications and only a small group of employers will be involved in the approvals process, meaning that most employers are excluded from the conversation.
While the motivation behind involving employers in this new approach is understandable, the practical implications of the government’s proposal are less encouraging. In line with the successful approach used to reduce the number of technical qualifications for 16 to 19-year-olds, the DfE should replace their planned ‘kitemarking’ scheme with a process similar to that previously used for ‘Tech Levels’. This means that technical qualifications at Levels 4 and 5 should attract government funding if they meet any one of several criterion e.g. receiving public letters of support from at least five employers in the relevant sector.
RECOMMENDATION 12: Higher-level technical qualifications should be funded by government if they are publicly endorsed by employers, professional bodies or Institutes of Technology. Each awarding organisation should also be restricted to offering one qualification per level in each subject.
Aside from the approvals process for technical qualifications, there is a longstanding issue regarding the institutions that are responsible for providing qualifications at Levels 4 and 5. FECs deliver just over half of the qualifications at these levels, with Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) such as universities delivering about a third of them. The list of qualifications available at Levels 4 and 5 is a mixture of academic and vocational courses of different sizes and with different purposes, such as Foundation Degrees, Higher National Certificates and various Awards, Certificates and Diplomas offered by a wide range of AOs that can last anything from a matter of hours up to two years. The problem is that HEIs currently compete with colleges to offer technical qualifications such as HNCs and HNDs, leaving learners and employers uncertain about who to engage with should they wish to pursue a higher technical pathway.
To reflect this report’s calls for greater collaboration among education providers within each locality, it is counterproductive for HEIs to be able to colonise the higher-level technical education space without any regard for similar provision available at nearby FECs. As discussed throughout this report, the advent of new ‘Technology Colleges’ will put the FE sector in a strong position to drive forward skills development and economic growth in their local areas, but this will only be possible if they become a ‘hub’ for higher technical courses that employers recognise and utilise.
RECOMMENDATION 13: The provision of Level 4 and 5 technical qualifications should be led in future by Technology Colleges. This means that HE providers such as universities should not be allowed to offer these qualifications unless they deliver them in partnership with local FE institutions.
Generating more demand for FE
Although much of this report focuses on increasing the supply of high-quality provision in FECs, it is just as important to consider ways of boosting demand because it is a step-change in demand for FECs that will ultimately put them on course to become respected and responsive institutions. The Augar Review made three recommendations designed to “promote both uptake of higher technical qualifications and flexible study”, including a single ‘lifelong learning loan allowance’ for tuition loans at Levels 4 to 6 for adults aged 18+ without a publicly funded degree as well as making student finance for tuition fees and maintenance support available for studying qualification modules as well as whole qualifications.
Just a week before the Augar Review was published in 2019, EDSK released its own report on the future of tertiary education that proposed a similar albeit arguably more ambitious version of these proposals. For example, EDSK proposed that at age 18, each learner in England could open an ‘Individual Education Budget’ (IEB). This IEB will act as a ‘learning account’ into which the government places up to £20,000, with the precise sum being dependent on a number of factors (e.g. whether or not a student is from a disadvantaged background). In addition, this funding in their IEB could be spent on any approved qualification at a regulated provider, including university degrees, college courses and apprenticeships.
Despite the slightly different approaches taken by the Augar Review and EDSK, the underlying principle of a ‘lifetime learning account’ is a common thread between them. What’s more, this principle represents a powerful mechanism for driving up demand for Level 4 and 5 programmes relative to more expensive and time-consuming residential undergraduate degrees that can leave students with loan debts of over £50,000 by the time their studies conclude.
RECOMMENDATION 14: Over this Parliament, the government should introduce a tertiary education funding model based on ‘Individual Education Budgets’ for every learner. The government should place the funding available to each learner into their Budget, and the learners would then be free to choose the course (university degree, college course or apprenticeship) and mode of learning (full-time or part-time; whole course or a course unit) that is most suitable for them.
The Augar Review opted to keep tuition and maintenance support separate, meaning that their ‘lifelong learning loan allowance’ would only relate to tuition fees while maintenance loans would be dealt with through other channels. In contrast, the EDSK report proposed that the government convert the existing student loan system into a lifetime ‘draw-down’ account available to all learners. This would cover the costs of tuition for all forms of provision (university, college or an apprenticeship) and can be accessed multiple times, unlike the current student loan system that operates as a ‘single shot’ account. At Level 4 and above, the loan system will also be available to cover living costs (i.e. a maintenance loan), meaning that learners could access the same financial support irrespective of whether they are studying at university or college or embarking on an apprenticeship. An approach that combines tuition and maintenance within a single funding channel therefore represents the simplest and most effective way to introduce a ‘loan allowance’ for students alongside their new ‘learning accounts’.
RECOMMENDATION 15: All learners should be given access to a new ‘lifetime loan limit’ of £75,000, which they can use to engage in education and training at any time throughout their career after the initial funds in their IEB have been used up. This lifetime loan system would cover both tuition and maintenance costs for university, college and apprenticeships.
To say that this country has fretted for a long time about the merits of its education and training system relative to other nations is something of an understatement. As part of his major speech in July, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson confirmed that this autumn will see the publication of “a White Paper that will set out our plans to build a world-class, German-style further education system in Britain, and level up skills and opportunities”. Even so, this report has outlined a plan for FE in England that is explicitly set in the context of the strengths and weaknesses of our existing FE sector rather than trying to directly replicate an equivalent system in another country.
This report seeks to create a model for FE in England that is respected, ambitious, responsive and stable. By giving colleges a clearly defined role in our education system alongside schools and universities, plus a greater emphasis on partnerships and meeting the needs of local communities and employers, the recommendations aim to move the sector towards achieving these four goals. That said, this report has concluded that such changes will only be possible if colleges around the country work tirelessly in collaboration with each other regarding every major decision that they make. This could best be described as ‘collective autonomy’, whereby colleges remain independent of government but important strategic choices are based on what is best for local groups of colleges rather than individual institutions.
After operating for many years in an unsettled and constrained policy and funding environment, many colleges have understandably turned inwards rather than facing outwards to support each other as well as support the learners and employers in their area. Against this historical backdrop, creating a more open and collaborative culture will not be easy. Nevertheless, if a respected, ambitious, responsive and stable FE sector emerges in the coming years then it might not be too long before other countries look with envy on our education and training system rather than the other way around.