The most important and interesting ideas in politics and policy are abstract. ‘Opportunity’, ‘equality’, ‘freedom’, ‘fairness’, ‘choice’, ‘quality’ and so on are all ideas which are powerful driving forces but need to be given context and meaning in order to make a difference to people’s lives and to society. A good deal of policy disagreement comes from the different meanings these powerful ideas have in different contexts. Perhaps it’s for this reason that politicians frequently resort to metaphors or images to convey their meaning. We are all familiar with the metaphors: ‘levelling up’ is a prime example. In education, politicians often talk about ‘levelling the playing field’ to make for greater fairness, or ‘accelerating improvement’ to make for better quality – both are more tangible than the abstract ideas, and they conjure mental pictures.
A couple of weeks ago, in a speech to the Association of Colleges, the Secretary of State for Education, Gavin Williamson used an especially revealing metaphor. He was speaking to an audience of further education principals and he talked about the government’s determination to ‘rebalance between higher and further education’. The metaphor is clear: the image is of a see-saw, and a rebalance from one end (higher education) to another end (further education). For Williamson, the focus of higher and further education should be on ensuring students choose the ‘right’ courses which will get them jobs. The next day, in his letter of direction to the incoming chair of the Office for Students, the Conservative peer James Wharton, Williamson pushed his point home: “ensuring students are able to make the right choices, accessing and succeeding on high quality courses which are valued by employers and lead to good graduate employment. Encouraging more and more students onto courses which do not provide good graduate outcomes does not provide real social mobility”.
There’s a lot embedded in the metaphor then, and a lot riding on the see saw. But the metaphor is almost certainly wrong. The world is changing. Higher education participation levels are rising all around the world – they now approach 50% in China, whose vast university system now dwarfs even the United States with its 55% participation. They are over 75% in South Korea. The UK’s 41% is not out of line for modern economies, and other regions are catching up. Participation has been increasing exponentially from a low base in sub-Saharan Africa. The world, as an Economist cover headline put it, is going to university in search of economic innovation and the foundations for knowledge-based economies and successful societies.
Ministers have fallen in love (another metaphor there) with further education, after years of neglect partly because it is, or appears to be, substantially cheaper than higher education. But that’s simply a different way of saying that further education is shamefully underfunded. In 2020 the core unit of resource in English further education was the same in real terms as it was in 1990. That’s not true for any other phase or sector of education, and it is one of the scandals of our education system. If ministers want – as they should – to improve the attractiveness and vitality of further education, they need to fund it more generously.
The real challenge in this country – and we are not alone in this – is not the quality and performance of our higher education system. The quadruple effects of relatively stable funding, diversified income streams, institutional autonomy and effective quality assurance have produced a high performance in quite different sorts of institution. It means that we do not simply have world-class institutions but a world-class system. The real challenge is the provision we make for those who do not progress to structured learning and development after the age of eighteen. Improving provision for those students is often unglamorous but the economic , and perhaps even more, social returns will be enormous – as countries as diverse as South Korea, Denmark and Switzerland attest. Government’s plans for a lifelong learning entitlement are good, but they are not funded until 2025 at the earliest.
This isn’t about see-saws and its certainly not about moving what will, in the grand scheme of things, be a relatively small number of students from higher to further education. It’s about a different metaphor: it’s about a springboard. It relies on securing stable funding for all parts of our post-18 system and incentivising collaboration and trust across different parts of the system. This can be done. Indeed, we are doing it in South Yorkshire where our unique post-eighteen education partnership [PEEP] brings together both universities – Sheffield Hallam and the University of Sheffield and all the region’s Colleges in a common enterprise to remove barriers for learners and promote trust, co-operation and exchange between institutions.
Almost all politicians can swap abstractions with some ease. The metaphors and images they use are often much more revealing. Our post-18 system doesn’t need rebalancing but – some more metaphors – it needs nurturing; it might need watering; it definitely needs enhancing; and, if we are to keep pace with a thriving global market, it needs extending.