Paul Reynolds on new ideas for Labour’s post-compulsory education policy
Education was significant in the 2017 Manifesto, with its promise of a comprehensive National Education Service. The promise to abolish student fees and reintroduce maintenance grants appealed to the youth vote and has encouraged the mobilisation of youth behind Corbyn. Recent concerns about Vice Chancellor’s pay have underlined the questioning of the corporate direction of universities. However, that was all that the manifesto said about universities
The post-compulsory education sections focused on skills, with promises to introduce free lifelong education in a well-staffed and well-resourced further education sector. It promised to: equalise funding between sixth forms and colleges in 16-18-year-old Key Stage 4 education; restore education maintenance allowances and replace fees with direct funding; and develop quality teaching across the private and public sector.
The third major plank to Labour’s proposals was the resourcing and improvement in quality of apprenticeship programmes from large and small/medium size employers, with trade union representation in the governance structures for apprenticeships and a specific commitment to inclusion for women, BAME, LGBT and disabled people. Only at the end of the skills section is the establishment of a lifelong learning commission ‘tasked with integrating further and higher education’.
Labour can and should be more radical in its approach to post-16 policy, both to attract support and to make a persuasive case for a constructive but not singular link between education and economy. How could it enhance its proposals?
Forming a Post-Compulsory Education Commission should be a priority. It should promote the value of all three routes to meeting ambitions, emphasising a parity of esteem where all forms of education (including training) are valued for their fitness for purpose and not their status (something that currently skews universities from further education colleges). This could directly foster an appreciation for industrial and vocational work (as it does in Germany, promoting industrial strategy) whilst appreciating the value of intellectual and cultural qualifications. This would also offset the rabid rhetoric of a crude ‘vocationality’ that is ineffectively being pressed in the university sector.
- The Commission would licence post-compulsory educational institutions, setting parameters on remuneration, legitimate educational functions and commitments to minimise fees and maximise public engagement and benefit from services to the stakeholders and communities. Each institution would identify its mission and priorities under these parameters.
- It should disentangle funding and esteem from some damaging metrics, for example the tying of quality measurement to uptakes of ‘graduate-level’ jobs for universities, which ignore the vagaries of employment markets and devalue other choices individuals might make post-qualification. Meaningful metrics that emphasise quality would be developed with – not imposed on – students and academic/technical staff and should ensure accountability.
- Labour should show that funding post-compulsory education can be offset by employer contributions for the skills they consume, central funding that is efficiently distributed and targeted at the point of service delivery and not senior management salaries, with a principle of some return by public service (below).
- It should promise a universal education ‘passport’ that guarantees resourcing for entry to all three features of post-compulsory education – apprenticeship, further education qualification or undergraduate degree. The resourcing need not be equal for the different choices that are made, but should enable to individual to fulfil their educational aspirations to a level of skills and competence that gives them traction in the labour market or in where they wish to achieve.
At an advanced level, where there might be some personal contribution to costs, it should initiate a system of subsidies and 0% interest loans from a national funding agency in part guaranteed by government and the regulatory institutions of post-compulsory education so that the institutions themselves are encouraged to offer bursaries, discounts and balance expansion of provision with a responsibility for its cost.
- It should operationalise life-long learning by making the passport a lifelong provision, so that even if it is spent in gaining qualifications early in life it can be credited with years of contributions to taxation, employers’ contributions, by credits tied to age thresholds (recrediting at 40/45 and on retirement) or by a record of community/voluntary engagement, so there is a transparency about what lifelong learning means.
- It should initiate a scheme where funding on post-compulsory courses is tied to a contractual commitment to work in the non-governmental sector with licenced social, cultural and environmental organisations that provide care, support and enabling to communities. This could augment the equalities and welfare agendas. So, an undergraduate completing a 3-year degree will commit to a 2 year ‘contract’. This could offset part of the financial contributions to such organisations.
This could ground an approach to life-long learning that is coherent, transparently affordable with a clear sense of where financial liabilities lie, and geared towards a genuine sense of people choosing their education trajectories, whilst enriching the economy, cultural and social life.