They used to focus on skills shortages, but now more labour market commentaries are emphasising the under- utilisation of skills and qualifications; particularly in relation to the excess supply of graduates compared to the number of ‘graduate jobs’ available. More recently still, concern has focussed on the extent of unpaid student debt – the consequence of graduates not earning enough to hit the pay back threshold, with estimates suggesting that with many graduates trapped in low-paid jobs, up to half it may never be repaid. This is Alison Wolf’s starting point and the justification for the Remaking of Tertiary Education[i] in which the influential Wolf calls for a sub-degree pathway providing more cost effective opportunities for young people to enter employment.
As Wolf correctly recognises, qualifications like Higher National Diplomas have long since disappeared as polytechnics have become degree issuing universities. Her proposals tail the Department for Education’s Post-16 Skills Plan[ii] which also outlines a new college based ‘technical’ pathway between academic education and work based apprenticeship training.
The problem is that (as Wolf acknowledges) the nature of the occupational structure is changing. The expanding middle of the post-war period which generated most of the new technical jobs has been replaced by an ‘hour-glass’ or has gone increasingly ‘pear shaped’ – as more work has been automated and those who would have been expected to end up in ‘the middle’ being pushed down into less skilled and less well paid employment, but also finding that where this sort of employment continues to be available, employers are able to recruit graduates.
This is the reason for mass enrolment in higher education. Despite the high fees, which were supposed to ‘price’ large numbers out of HE, young people continue to enrol because even though having a degree may earn you less than it used to, in most cases it still provides a ‘premium’ compared to being without. Unless a sub-degree qualification –which would be completed in two years and charge lower fees -or a technical route, offers guarantees of a job and with few opportunities to complete more than a low-level and dead-end apprenticeship, there would seem to be little chance that large numbers would reconsider anything but a university route.
Progressives should not support these ‘alternatives’ they are part of a Great Reversal of education policy. Despite its contradictions and distortions, mass participation in higher education, just like the comprehensive education that’s driven it, is a positive development and something not considered possible even thirty years ago. Higher education needs to be reorganised to accommodate these developments. Rather than offering different types of education, for different types of young people FE colleges and universities should be part of local networks of post-16 provision available to all and not only offering a variety of courses but a variety of assessment methods and different time frames.
[i] Remaking Tertiary Education: can we create a system that is fair and fit for purpose?
[ii] Department for Education/ Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. Post-16 Skills Plan
The NUT has just released King’s College research on the effects of government policies on the secondary curriculum. Based on a sample of 1800 secondary members and in depth school case studies, key findings show amongst other things:
- 74% of teachers consider the Ebacc requirements are dramatically narrowing the curriculum.
- 84% worry that the excessive pressure of exams is taking its toll on young people’s well- being and mental health.
- Three quarters of teachers believe that the new ‘one size fits all’ GCSEs will be less suitable for low attaining students and have made the curriculum uninspiring and anachronistic.
- A general lack of confidence in ‘Progress 8’ – Government’s latest attempt to measure students’ progress and hold schools accountable for it, with widespread opposition to using unreliable KS2 SATs data as the basis for measuring progress at GCSE.
- 92% reporting their workload has increased as a result of the changes
- Increased concern about job insecurity as the non-Ebacc subjects are scaled down or become no longer available as a learning option, particularly as a result of funding cuts.
Download full report here
Updated and revised. This ‘final’ version covers developments since the 2015 General Election – like the employer levy, The Post-16 Plan, the Institute of Apprenticeships, the further development of the Trailblazers.
Despite these however, provisional figures for 2015/2016 continue show that apprenticeships continue to be mostly ‘low skilled and dead end’ and for most young people, remain a ‘Great Training Robbery.’
The latest report from Alan Milburn’s Social Mobility Commission continues to misunderstand why social mobility rates have largely halted. It proposes several ‘educational’ solutions from extending school sixth form opportunities (nobody would disagree with this) to forcing schools in low-performing local authorities to take part in improvement programmes so that Ofsted targets can be met (there is no mention of the need for more grammar schools!)
But rates of social mobility largely reflect wider economic inequalities rather than overturning them. The relatively high rates of upward mobility in the post-war years coincided with the growth of ‘middle’ managerial and professional occupations during this period which required recruitment from below – an increase in absolute mobility.
Contrary to the arguments in this report that there will be a shortage of workers to fill 15 million more highly skilled jobs by 2022, any growth of managerial and professional jobs has been far outpaced by the increases in levels of education – around 1 in 4 people under 35 now having university degrees – and the huge growth in the number of people who can perform them.
With such a large surplus of graduates, rather than moving up, large numbers now fear being pushed down as further increases in the power of digital and robotic technology mean that fewer still will likely to progress to employment commensurable with their qualifications.
Milburn’s report does on the other hand includes some hard data about the extent of inequality in the UK and this alone makes it a useful contribution
She might have ditched the Cameron government’s Acadamisation plans but Education Secretary Justine Greening is going ahead with its Post-16 Skills Plan [i] – legalities were formalised in The Technical and Further Education Bill on Oct 27th.
The Plan commits itself to create 15 distinct ‘pathfinder’ routes into employment each with a single ‘college based’ Tech Level qualification and/or an apprenticeship -designed by employers’ representatives. The technical and apprenticeships routes, which will run alongside, but be equal in status to academic A-levels and will be the responsibility of a new Institute of Apprenticeships and Technical Education. The new institute, which currently exists as the Institute of Apprenticeships but, so far, with only a shadow structure will:
Determine the occupations for apprenticeships and technical education qualifications
Approve ‘standards’ and ‘technical education qualifications’ and groups to develop them
Own the ‘standards’ from which qualifications development will be based
Hold copyright of approved technical education qualifications.