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Professor Helen Higson discusses Government’s post-18 education funding review

Government’s post-18 education funding review and how it must enable regions to join up their own skills pipeline, by Professor Helen Higson

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Augar’s independent report to Government, a key component to inform the ongoing Post-18 Education and Funding Review, is the first to consider both parts of tertiary education since the Robbins report in 1963. Augar’s recommendations have been dissected from many different perspectives, but little has been written about the influence they would have on the regional skills agenda.

The report points to a story of care (for higher education) and neglect (for the rest of the education system), and of skills shortages and mismatches, which together are detrimental to the UK’s productivity. To help remedy this, Augar proposes a raft of measures aimed at: strengthening technical education and refunding further education colleges; increasing flexibility and lifelong learning; and incentivising providers, including universities, to increase provision that is better aligned to the economy’s needs.

Before the Prime Minister commissioned the Review, regional partners here in Birmingham and the wider West Midlands were busy developing their own skills plans and shared vision for a tertiary education system which meets regional skills needs, and underpins the local industrial strategy.

Elements of the Augar report, if implemented, would help bring our vision to life; others could pose a threat.”

Aston University was created in 1895 by the employers of Birmingham who could not find the right skills, so they started growing their own. As Provost of Aston University, I currently chair the Greater Birmingham and Solihull Local Enterprise Partnership (GBSLEP) Employment and Skills Board (ESB).

Our job on the ESB is to address the key skills gaps in the region.  These include the need to:

  • Decrease local skills shortages and gaps in provision of skilled labour.
  • Increase the proportion of the local population with higher level skills.
  • Address skills shortages particularly in advanced manufacturing, life sciences, energy and digital technologies, as well as disruptive and emerging technologies.
  • Ensure that there are a “well-known” choice of quality training providers.
  • Increase the diversity and productivity of the local workforce to compete globally.
  • Get more businesses investing in the skills of their employees.

We seek to do this by partnership and collaboration, motivating and inspiring provision, and the development of even more employer-led programmes, including apprenticeships and degree apprenticeships. It is also our important job to ensure this pipeline joins up and is accessible to learners. The recent award of an Institute of Technology to the GBSLEP area, and another in Dudley, are examples of how FE and HE working together can facilitate this pipeline in a way which benefits learners and employers.

At each level there is the opportunity to encourage learners to move to the next level. Our research shows that we need employees who have education levels at each stage of the chain, and increasing numbers who reach at least Level 5. We have identified that we need to upskill at least 63,000 members of the local population to Level 3 plus, and we need to close the gap at Level 4 plus (in 2017 our region was 6.6% below the UK average). At a higher level, there has been a steady growth in numbers attending our five local universities, but there is capacity for more. The ESB sees one of its main roles as making sure that this chain is connected and that learners are aware of the next step.

Augar’s proposals to strengthen FE provision are therefore welcome; FE has been squeezed far too tightly and must be strengthened to better enable it to play its crucial part in the pipeline.

But not all of Augar’s recommendations would help secure the skills pipeline in our region.”

The 2012 Wilson Review of business-university collaboration spurred on the development of the degree apprenticeship. In our region, as elsewhere, employers have understood what an important role these play in addressing many of the skills gaps and diversifying the workplace. They have been an important catalyst to collaboration between FE, HE and employers. It is a worry then, that Augar’s recommendations, when it to comes to degree apprenticeships, suggest imposing restrictions on how businesses can spend on their skills needs. This would not help the delivery of our skills plan, nor will it facilitate the social mobility that Augar speaks of. This, with the regressive funding proposals which seem to penalise those on low and middle incomes, and the misunderstanding of the role of the foundation year, would make our joined-up and responsive regional skills pipeline more difficult to achieve.

If anything, businesses should be enabled by the system to invest in their employees even more flexibly. This could be achieved by allowing employees to build up ‘micro-credentials’ at college or university, which meet immediate and emerging skills needs. Such a system, flexible and responsive, could be a game-changer for our region.

Augar’s recommendations are neither a white, nor even a green paper, and it is how they are implemented that will be important. There is a real opportunity for the Government to use elements of the Augar report to inform a truly strategic skills policy which could work in our region. The risk, however, is that recommendations, particularly around HE funding, will be cherry picked for political expediency, and those with the potential to transform the skills pipeline could be lost. Let’s hope that our law makers understand how important it is to embed a progressive, sustainable funding model which secures the pipeline of high level skills development which individuals, businesses and our region need, and grasp the opportunity to create it.

By Professor Helen Higson, Provost and Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Professor of Higher Education Learning and Management, Aston University