(Photo by BuildPix/Construction Photography/Avalon/Getty Images)
Artillery Row

Why is Further Education still neglected?

The public expects more Government action on vocational options, says the Chief Economist at the Social Market Foundation

There is something of an inferiority complex in the further and vocational education sector. Not in terms of the quality of its teaching or the benefit it provides to learners — on those scores, it is justifiably proud of its social contribution — rather, the insecurity relates to how vocational qualifications are perceived by wider society. As one FE college principal told me, “Universities are seen as prestigious; colleges are where other people’s kids go.”

These beliefs have not emerged out of nowhere. Last month, the Social Market Foundation analysed mentions of further and higher education in the media and in parliament. In the past decade, newspapers made twice as many references to HE as to FE, and in every year but one HE was discussed more often by MPs.

Funding levels and trends contribute to a sense that further education is a lower priority than other parts of the system: per-student funding is a third less in FE than in HE, and the amount has fallen by 4 per cent in the last decade. We at the Social Market Foundation don’t think it’s a coincidence that the politicians who have overseen such cuts — and the journalists who have largely ignored them — are overwhelmingly university graduates.

Vocational education remains under-resourced and opportunities are few and far between

Yet the approach taken by the politicians and journalists is out of step with the views of the public, as a survey carried out recently by Opinium on behalf of the Social Market Foundation and the Further Education Trust for Leadership shows. We told people to imagine their children were about to leave school and asked them what they would want them to do next. The most popular answer, chosen by 48 per cent of respondents was to get a vocational qualification. By comparison, 37 per cent of people said they would want their children to go to university.

That does not represent a call to dramatically scale back university provision. As it happens, 37 per cent of 18-year-olds in the UK did enter higher education in 2020. Moreover, the dichotomy between higher and vocational education is not clear cut, with many students studying vocational courses at universities. However, these results do suggest that the range and number of vocational options fall below what people expect: only a quarter of 18-year-olds that left school in England in 2018 went into further education or an apprenticeship.

Voters believe vocational education should be a higher political priority

Interestingly, the survey suggests the middle classes are much more positive about vocational options than might be assumed. 43 per cent of people classified as “ABC1” said they would want their child to get a vocational qualification, compared to 45 per cent who would rather they went to university. In many ways, this is welcome news, suggesting that the status of vocational options is increasing. However, it also brings problems. Young people from the least deprived areas are three times as likely to get an apprenticeship as those from the most deprived areas. In 2018, then Skills minister Anne Milton said: “Fears of a middle-class grab on apprenticeships are valid.”

In general, the public has a positive view of vocational qualifications. Most people believe them to be as effective — if not more so — than university degrees in helping people get a good job, become work-ready, develop technical skills, and become proactive employees. In fact, the only area where more people believe university degrees to be superior is in long-term financial rewards.

It should be no surprise, then, that voters believe vocational education should be a higher political priority. Exactly half said technical and practical options should receive as much attention from the Government as university degrees, and a further third said they should receive more.

In its rhetoric, the Government has gone some way to addressing this imbalance. The recent Skills for Jobs White Paper represents a step in the right direction, promising greater provision of higher technical qualifications, equivalent financial support for such courses as for higher education and investment in FE colleges. Yet these plans have some way to go to make up for years of neglect; vocational education remains under-resourced and opportunities are few and far between.

A higher level of stable and accessible funding is needed. There should also be more explicit recognition and elaboration of the roles of different institutions and, in particular, a clearer demarcation of the responsibilities of universities and FE colleges. At the same time, there is a need for more joined-up collaboration between different educational institutions, national government, and employers to develop pathways that work best for learners.

None of that will come easily to a graduate-dominated political class that has given vocational education too little consideration so far, but it is what the public expects.

Aveek Bhattacharya is Chief Economist at the Social Market Foundation, a cross-party think tank.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover