The Skills Funding Agency announced this week that public funding is to be withdrawn from a further 1,600 adult qualifications for which, they say, there is little or no demand. Two thirds of publicly funded qualifications (6,900 in total) have been removed from government funding since 2013. Skills minister Nick Boles welcomed the move, saying the qualifications were ‘cluttering up the system’.
On the face of it, this looks like a smart move. Employers want a qualifications system that is streamlined and easy to comprehend. And students want to know that the qualifications they are seeking are worthwhile and, if the purpose of study is vocational (and the expectation is that it will be), valued by employers. But even if we accept that qualifications that support progression to and in employment are what we should be focusing on, it’s not clear that student take-up is, in itself, a reliable indicator of what is valuable or worth funding – or, indeed, of what local businesses need if they are to prosper.
In fact, the qualifications from which funding is to be withdrawn include a larger number in sectors important to the economy, such as engineering, manufacturing, ICT, and building and construction, and where there are growing skills shortages, particularly in higher-level technical jobs. Nor is it particularly useful to directly equate student take-up with student demand or interest. Prohibitive fees and an unwillingness to take on large amounts of debt are other factors which should be part of a much more nuanced, intelligently thought-out approach to streamlining qualifications.
Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, the ongoing cull of qualifications is indicative of a really remarkable narrowing of the educational offer to adults – one which began in earnest under the previous government as it became increasingly fixated on a funding model based on boosting employability and vocational skills. It’s not that employment and vocational training aren’t important – obviously they are – it’s just that they aren’t everything. Among the qualifications considered of no or low value will be many that adults have found hugely valuable, in giving them a foothold in learning again, building their confidence, broadening their horizons or simply offering them a second chance. Education isn’t only about getting people into work or on at work. It’s also about confidence and aspiration, family and community, citizenship and social cohesion. It makes people better citizens, better parents. It can make them more flexible, more resilient, more rounded and civilised, helping them become better people as well as better employees. The wider public value of adult education is far too infrequently asserted.
As Helena Kennedy wrote in her 1997 policy paper Learning Works, while ‘prosperity depends upon there being a vibrant economy … an economy which regards its own success as the highest good is a dangerous one’. There are other claims upon public support for education, Kennedy went on, namely justice and equity. Ignoring those claims is likely to be disastrous for us as a society, as a democracy and, ultimately, as an economy. This seems to me common sense. Yet parts of Kennedy’s paper – those in which she asserts the wider value of adult and further education – now read like something from another era. Part of the problem with adopting the circumscribed language and outlook of funders and policy makers is that it becomes more and more difficult to assert the value of those things that lie outside it. The less we talk about them the less relevant they seem until those things become almost unsayable (at least without inviting ridicule or marginalizing oneself – either as too wishy-washy or too radical). You either talk within the circumscribed limits or you talk to yourself. And the harder it becomes to talk about what we value, the harder it is to defend it against cuts. Increasingly, I find myself asking, who will stand up for adult education?
Under the coalition, we have seen the realm of publicly funded adult education continue to shrink. Indeed, the pace has quickened under the all-consuming (and all-justifying) blanket of austerity politics. UCAS’s latest figures on full-time applications to higher education show that while applications from younger students continue to hold up, applications from those over the age of 25 continues to decline – this on top of an 18 per cent decline between 2010 and 2013. And while applications from young people from disadvantaged backgrounds are up, people from advantaged backgrounds are still more than twice as likely to apply to university as their less-advantaged counterparts – even more so in the case of the most selective universities.
The numbers are even worse for part-time students, the vast majority of whom are older students (with a large proportion from disadvantaged backgrounds). Over the past four years, part-time student numbers in the UK have fallen by more than a third – with the figure even higher for part-time students aged above 25. In England, according to HEFCE, part-time undergraduate student numbers fell by 46 per cent between 2010–11 and 2013–14. The reasons for the decline are complex, but include Labour’s introduction of the ELQ rule – which denied funding to students studying at a level lower or equivalent to a level at which they were already qualified – the increase in part-time fees and the introduction of loans for part-timers (unsurprisingly adults with a range of other financial commitments have not been keen to take them up and incur more debt in their 30s, 40s or 50s), and a growing reluctance among employers to support employees to study part-time alongside their work. Despite protestations to the contrary, it is increasingly obvious that the government considers the damage caused to part-time HE a price worth paying (as long as applications from younger students holds up).
Adult education in FE is also under huge pressure. The government’s February 2014 skills funding statement included a 19 per cent cut to the adult skills budget by 2015–16, meaning an overall fall in adult skills funding from £2.8 million in 2010–2011 to £2 billion in 2015–16. Unsurprisingly, the cuts have resulted in an 11 per cent overall drop in adult participation in state funded learning between 2012–13 and 2013–14, with the numbers even worse for older adults –27 per cent fewer adults aged 25 and over in Level 3 provision and 34.2 per cent fewer in Level 4. At the same time, the Department for Education has 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 years olds from last September, placing still more pressure on college principals. And while funding for 16–18 year olds is expected to be stable in 2015, further substantial cuts are expected in adult skills.
All of this has coincided with a substantial reduction in the public library service, making it even more difficult for adults to learn in their own time, on their own terms. Some 324 libraries have closed, with many more under threat, as a result of a 40 per cent cut in local government funding since 2010.
Even on the government’s own narrow terms this is self-defeating. In an ageing society in which social mobility has stalled – seemingly irreversibly – and compulsory education is so unhelpful to so many (the educational achievement gap between rich and poor at GCSE is widening), we simply cannot afford to put adults off returning to education. We cannot afford to be a society in which second chances are out of reach to so many people. It’s bad enough that our education system seems designed to write people off at as early a stage as possible, and to qualify the success of almost all but a small, mostly already privileged, minority. But to close down so much opportunity later in life makes no sense, not if we are serious about moving towards becoming a high-skill, high-productivity economy. If the system we have cannot offer good, affordable and varied opportunities for people to learn as adults, wherever they live and whatever their social background, then the system simply isn’t working.
Helena Kennedy wrote that education ‘has always been a source of social vitality and the more people we can include in the community of learning, the greater the benefits to us all’. It ‘strengthens the ties which bind people, takes the fear out of difference and encourages tolerance. It helps people to see what makes the world tick and the ways in which they, individually and together, can make a difference. It is the likeliest means of creating a modern, well-skilled workforce, reducing levels of crime, and creating participating citizens’. Wonderful words – as true now as they were in 1997. We haven’t changed and the social and economic needs Kennedy talks about are, if anything, more acute. Education has to offer more than a rounded liberal education for the few and patchy vocational training for the rest – or at least those that can afford it. As Kennedy argued, we can no longer afford to weight education spending on the already privileged in the expectation that this will produce ‘an excellence which permeates the system’. The trickle-down theory of economics doesn’t work – nor does the trickle-down theory of education. Apart from anything else, it is incredibly damaging to social cohesion or any sense that we are ‘in this together’. I’m sure nobody working at the Treasury would think mere training good enough for their children. Well, it isn’t good enough for other people’s children either.