It won’t grab many headlines, even in the specialist education press, but there is a growing crisis in adult participation in education and training, with stark implications both for our economy and our democracy. If the trend continues it will soon be necessary to reinvent from scratch a part of the education system which has taken over a century to build up.
The government yesterday released its latest figures on adult participation in further education and apprenticeship training – and the news, predictably enough, was bad. They revealed an 11 per cent fall in adult participation in state-funded learning overall between 2012-13 and 2013-14, a nine per cent drop at Level 2 (GCSE or equivalent), and an 18 per cent decrease at Level 3 (A-level or equivalent), the point at which qualifications begin to make a significant difference in terms of future earnings and life chances (and lifting people out of the low-pay trap). The numbers are even starker for older adults. There were 27 per cent fewer adults aged 25 and over in Level 3 provision and 34 per cent fewer in Level 4 provision (equivalent to Certificates of Higher Education). In addition, the sector saw a nine per cent drop in adults (19-plus) on government-supported maths and English courses.
This follows a similarly dramatic decline in mature participation in higher education in the UK, and particularly in England, following the introduction of the coalition’s HE reforms, which in effect trebled the cost of higher study and replaced grant funding with financing through loans. The extension of loans to some part-time students was hailed as a step forward in terms of levelling the playing field between full-time and part-time, but a combination of increased fees, debt aversion among older adults, and a tough economic climate (unemployment, low pay, rising costs of living, and a squeeze on employer training budgets) has seen numbers plummet. There was a 46 per cent drop in part-time undergraduate entrants – the vast majority of whom are mature students attempting to develop new skills or improve existing ones while juggling family, work and other commitments – between 2010-11 and 2013-14, with full-time mature student recruitment also failing to keep up with enrolments among younger students (which have remained stable).
As I’ve argued before, part-time mature study is one of the big unsung success stories of UK higher education – the outcome of much toil and inspiration, often against the grain of public policy. It had been in decline for a number of years before the government introduced the latest fees and funding reforms, in large part due to the Labour government’s notorious ELQ rule, which withdrew state support for students studying for a qualification at a level lower than or equivalent to one they already possessed, and represented the final straw for many university lifelong learning departments. While the coalition has relaxed the policy for subjects adjudged economically valuable (STEM subjects), it still excludes a large majority of part-timers from access to loans. These students are still obliged to pay the significantly inflated part-time fees upfront. And even for those students who can access loans the increase in fees makes higher education an altogether riskier and less attractive proposition. Little wonder than that we have seen such a huge collapse in numbers among this group of students.
There are lessons to be learned from this but it is clear the government has not learned them. Despite repeated warnings from within further education the coalition opted to pursue the same high-risk strategy in a sector which had already seen a steady decline in adult participation, as well as a pronounced shift in support to courses with narrow basic skills or employability outcomes. From 2013–14, funding was withdrawn for a range of courses for over-24s and replaced with a system of government-backed loans for learners aged 24 and over undertaking qualifications at Level 3 or higher. We have begun to see the impact of this intervention. In 2012–13, more than 400,000 people aged 24-plus took courses at Levels 3 and 4. Figures for 2013–14, show that only 57,000 students aged 24-plus took up loans at this level. Subsequent figures show that only 43,830 applications for the loans were made between April 2014 and September 2014. This suggests both that there has been a very substantial drop in participation among older adults at this level and that recruitment is showing no signs of recovery. Worryingly, the government is already consulting on expanding the loan scheme. The latest participation figures should make ministers think again – and hard.
Budgetary pressure on the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills has, of course, been enormous, and, despite the best efforts of secretary of state Vince Cable to defend the sector, the cuts have been eye-wateringly deep. While new money was found for apprenticeships, the government’s February 2014 skills funding statement included a 19 per cent cut to the adult skills budget by 2015–16. This meant an overall fall in adult skills funding from £2.8 billion in 2010–2012 to £2 billion in 2015–16 (before inflation is taken into account). The budgets for offender learning and community learning, while unchanged, have remained static for many years, meaning their real-term levels are much reduced. Meanwhile, the Department for Education reduced spending on 16 to 18-year-olds from £7.7 billion in 2009–10 to £7 billion in 2013–14, with a swingeing 17.5 per cent cut to the funding rate for 18 year olds from September this year. Perversely, as Vince Cable told a fringe meeting at this year’s Liberal Democrat party conference, these outcomes represent something of a ‘result’ for the sector. In 2010, he told delegates, he had personally blocked a move to withdraw all state funding from further education (a step, civil servants assured him, ‘nobody will really notice’).
With direct state funding being consistently withdrawn from core areas of adult learning and skills, many providers will be looking ahead to next week’s autumn statement (due on 3 December) with apprehension. Coping with year-on-year cuts and instability has become a day-to-day concern of managers and leaders in the FE sector. As Vince Cable’s anecdote suggests, further education continues to be little understood in the corridors of Whitehall – not surprising given the depressingly narrow social make-up of our senior politicians and civil servants. Few will have experienced further education or have any understanding of the critical importance of second chances to so many in our society. Yet it should be obvious, even to those with limited understanding of the sector, that the provision of opportunities for adults to continue learning throughout their lives is of immense value – a necessity rather than a nice-to-have. A cursory look at the challenges we face as a society should suffice to demonstrate that.
To begin with, the UK faces a major skills challenge – one complicated and made more acute by the undeniable but equally largely unacknowledged reality of demographic change. According to the OECD, England’s young people are among the worst in the developed world in terms of literacy and numeracy – with England the only one in which the generation approaching retirement is more literate and numerate than the youngest adults. The OECD’s 2013 skills survey found that around 8.5 million adults in England and Northern Ireland, 24.1 per cent of the population, had such basic levels of numeracy that they can manage only one-step tasks in arithmetic, sorting numbers of reading graphs. This compares to an average of 19 per cent of adults with such basic numeracy levels across the developed world. The OECD warned that the ‘talent pool of skilled adults’ in England was likely to shrink relative to other countries and called for more ‘second chance’ opportunities for low-skilled adults to learn. This is particularly troubling in the context of an ageing society in which a high proportion of the jobs of the future will be taken by the workforce of today. Some 13.5 million vacancies are expected over the next 10 years, with only seven million new labour market entrants to fill them.
At the same time, the UK has a significant problem with productivity, linked to low pay and low skills. Productivity is 30 per cent higher in France, Germany and the USA than in the UK and is four per cent lower here than it was in the first quarter of 2008, its pre-recession peak. A recent report from Labour think-tank the Smith Institute found that countries with better productivity records ‘have more high-skilled employment and less unskilled employment’, citing research from the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development which shows that a third of UK workers are overqualified for their job. Unsurprisingly, given the economy’s bias towards low-skilled jobs, low pay is an acute problem in the UK (as the Joseph Rowntree Foundation highlighted this week). Some five million people are paid below the living wage. And, for the first time, the majority of people in poverty in the UK live in households in which at least one adult is working. Employment is on the up, but most new jobs are low-paid and insecure, with outsourcing and zero-hours contracts on the rise. Wages are falling in real terms and 1.3 million people are working part-time because they cannot find full-time work.
Addressing the problem of low pay demands not just more jobs, but better jobs, with skills development at their core. There is growing recognition of the importance of skills to this agenda, and of the need to develop a strategy for skills linked to employment and economic policy. This was borne out in this week’s report from the UK Commission for Employment and Skills, supported by the CBI and the TUC, which called for radical change to the skills system. Yet as the latest drop in adult participation in FE shows, government reforms are making this change harder to achieve and more remote. The prospects for a high-productivity, high-performance economy, in which adults have opportunities to retrain, upskill or change career at different points in their lives, look bleak indeed. At the same time, the vision articulated in the early days of the last government, of a learning society in which education for citizenship, social cohesion, and personal development and fulfillment was valued alongside education to find and get on at work, has receded so far that it barely registers in the collective memory of a sector battered by continual cuts and bewildered by near-constant reform. As Vince Cable has hinted, unless we find ways of increasing the resources flowing into further and higher education, more and deeper cuts are inevitable, making inclusive, sustainable growth and the development of a better, happier, more resilient, engaged and cohesive society, increasingly unlikely.