Where are we now? The coalition’s midterm review

The coalition’s midterm ‘renewal of vows’ was an opportunity for the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister to reaffirm their commitment to the government’s ongoing programme of reform. The 52-page review document dedicated a page and a half to ‘further education and universities’ and, while there was little new in policy terms, there was a firm undertaking to continue the direction of travel and focus on implementing reforms already in train.

The big society was dutifully name-checked but it is clear that the concept, a usefully obscure peg on which far too much hope has been pinned and too much creative thought expended, will no longer provide a guiding narrative for policy. Despite this, much of the rhetoric of the coalition continues to be framed in terms of decentralising power away from Westminster to ‘counties, cities, towns, villages, neighbourhoods and citizens’. The emphasis is firmly on finding local, as opposed to centrally driven, solutions to local economic and social problems, and to getting the right blend of planning and funding arrangements to achieve this. As the report notes:

It is not the grand plans of politicians and bureaucrats that will ultimately deliver social progress and build social capital, but the ingenuity, innovation and entrepreneurial spirit of the British people – the Big Society.

The report talks up the coalition’s ‘sweeping reforms to increase local authority freedom’ and its abolition of regional government, pledging to ‘continue to devolve responsibility to local government’ and to take forward Lord Heseltine’s recommendation that local areas should have single funding pots. It also affirms its commitment to giving neighbourhoods ‘greater powers to do things for themselves’ – citing its Social Action Fund to provide opportunities for people to get involved in volunteering and its plan to train community organisers in the most deprived communities – though many in the voluntary sector, faced with ‘crippling cuts’ to charity funding, may find the suggestion that the coalition has ‘offered support to all those who want to improve their communities and their local services’ a little difficult to take.

The section on universities and further education asserts the coalition’s commitment to rectify what it describes as Britain’s historic tendency to undervalue ‘both the academic and technical skills a modern economy needs’. It promises to ‘take the tough decisions needed to ensure that our universities thrive’, adding:

We value them for their intrinsic, as well as their economic, worth: as seats of learning and research dedicated to increasing the sum of human knowledge and understanding, and as centres of innovation and invention, the driving force behind our increasingly high-tech, knowledge-based economy.

It is disappointing that the role of higher education institutions in engaging their communities and contributing to local economic growth is overlooked here. The government’s utilitarian vision, as expressed here and elsewhere, falls some way short of that set out in the Dearing report, which recognised that higher education has a critical role to play in building and sustaining a learning society, as well as in securing economic growth. As the Inquiry into the Future for Lifelong Learning argued, ‘universities contribute across the full range of desirable forms of capital – human, social, identity, creative and mental’. It is worth reasserting that higher education is an important public good, as much about cultural enrichment as it is about skills, as much about helping people grow intellectually and achieve fulfillment as it is about equipping them for work.

Engaging adults in higher education, and opening up more opportunities for them to study part-time, in ways that fit around their work and family circumstances, is important both in achieving economic growth and in addressing the needs of adults who do not currently participate in any learning at all. The government has taken important steps ‘to provide more financial support to students from low-income families’ and to extend income-contingent loans to part-time students. However, its good intentions are being undermined by the unintended consequences of some of its other reforms, as can be seen in the sharp drop in the numbers of mature students applying to study full-time in higher education. There are indications that there has also been a sharp drop in part-time admissions and concerns about the impact this will have on institutions which traditionally attract large numbers of part-time students. It is perhaps too soon to claim, as the report does in recapping the coalition’s changes to higher education funding, that it has ‘put universities on a secure and sustainable financial footing’. The government and the sector will need to think carefully about how to ensure part-time higher education study makes its full contribution both to the country’s future economic wellbeing and to widening access and improving social mobility.

The ‘different but equally important’ role ascribed to further education colleges is similarly narrow: ‘equipping our people with the basic, applied and specialist skills they need in the world of work, either at the beginning of their careers, or when they need re-skilling.’ Ahead of the government’s response to the Richard review, there is the laudable, and long overdue, ambition to see a ‘system of apprenticeships to rival those out countries such as Germany’ and a commitment to raising standards in line with Richard’s recommendations. The report undertakes to simplify and increase the rigour of FE qualifications, to make skill provision more responsive to employer demand and to introduce traineeships to support young people at work. It also reiterates the coalition’s commitment to introduce, from August, Advanced Learning Loans for people aged 24 and over. The impact of the latter reform on adult participation remains very much an unknown quantity, despite welcome moves to mitigate some of the potential negative impact of the policy. One of the lessons of the decline in participation among mature students in HE is that the government needs to do more to ensure funding changes do not deter mature applications. A good place to start would be to think about how it communicates with them.

Nobody, of course, will be surprised that, in a short summary document such as this, there is no mention of adult education more broadly conceived or acknowledgement of its wider benefits to a range of other policy agendas, but some recognition would have suggested a better grasp of the interconnectedness of these agendas and of the wider post-16 education landscape, in particular. The pace of reform during the first two years of coalition government has been rapid, and there is much to be said for slowing down the pace a little, while current changes bed down and their impacts become clearer. Ministers tend still to think of the different parts of the post-16 system as discrete and isolated rather than as part of a wider framework of lifelong learning. Achieving a better articulation of the way in which the different parts of the system relate to each other will be a critical test of the government’s reforms during the remainder of this parliament.

This article originally appeared here.