Even before the downturn and threat to jobs created by the pandemic, England’s unbalanced approach to funding higher education had widened the skills gap and hampered social mobility. The system has focused on providing loans to full-time courses in academic subjects. While this has led to an increase in the number of graduates, it has also diluted professional and technical learning.
In 2000, more than 180,000 people were studying professional or technical subjects at a higher level. a decade on is less than 65,000. This means that only a tenth of adults have such a qualification – compared to 20 percent in Germany – even though people who have them earn more on average after five years than colleagues with a degree. It has also left far too few opportunities for retraining for people in their twenties and beyond, which limits the flexibility of the labor market and their own prospects. The prime minister tabled a plan on Tuesday to correct this.
Downing Street builds on the work of the Augar Review of May 2019, which recommended lifelong learning loans for a far wider range of courses than standard undergraduate programs, which are typically full-time over a three-year period . The loans, which would be offered with the same generous repayment terms as standard degrees, would be available to those wishing to study at any standard between the GCSE level and a full degree. According to the Prime Minister’s plan, starting April next year the government would also offer a free, fully funded college course to anyone without a high school diploma or equivalent qualification.
By stimulating the demand for adult education, universities and colleges are likely to serve society’s electricians and engineers better than they do now, offering more flexible learning courses and options that can take place at times that are better suited to those who are already at work or with whom they work other life commitments. This in turn could help overcome a financial crisis in continuing education, the funding of which has been halved in real terms since 2010. The existing loan system provided £ 8 billion to support 1.2 million English students in the 2017-18 academic year. This equates to £ 2.3 billion for 2.2 million adult continuing education students.
The publication of the plan seems a bit rushed. Important details – such as which courses will be freely available – are missing. A more complete picture will not be published in a whitepaper until later this year. More clarity is also required for the next steps if the initial courses are successful. And it can help in the medium term to remedy some of the damage to the labor market caused by the pandemic. However, the April launch date seems like a long wait for the estimated $ 1m that are expected to be laid off once the Chancellor’s vacation program ends in late October.
There remains a big question mark about how much the government is willing to spend on top of the loans. Despite all the economic advantages, high-level vocational training is expensive. A post-war experiment with technical schools was canceled for cost reasons. Loans alone may not fully fill the funding gap created by decades of underinvestment. However, the Downing Street plan should be welcomed – not only to close the skills gap, but also to recognize the essential role adult education can play in enriching the lives of those who do not enter college immediately after graduation. If well implemented, the plan should help the economy recover from coronavirus and create a prosperous, coherent society as a result.