University, further and technical qualifications : routes to success

The Department for Education (DfE) has published a white paper today called “Skills for Jobs: Lifelong Learning for Opportunity and Growth”. You can access the paper here.

This paper focuses on post-16 education and qualifications and sets out reforms to further education in order to give people the skills to get the jobs they want further on in life. The report sets out that in light of Covid-19 and a changing economy in the UK, there needs to be a focus on the skills needed to support industries that are growing and other skills that will allow people to progress within their careers, wherever they are in the country. DfE sets out to do this by:

  • Placing employers at the centre of the system in order to pivot education and training towards jobs that are growing and where there are skills gaps to increase productivity.
  • Increasing investment in higher-level technical qualifications that can be a valuable alternative to a university degree.
  • Ensuring that all individuals have good careers support that empowers and informs them of the opportunities to train and learn; are able to access them flexibly across and at any stage of their lives.
  • Reforming funding and accountability for providers. This will simplify how funds are distributed, increasing independence and accountability of providers to deliver value for money for the Government, providers and learners.
  • Increasing support for teachers in further education and raising the quality standards.

The reforms

  1. Apprenticeships reforms with increased focus on employers needs to further increase the quality of apprenticeships in order to change opinions of it being a “second-rate option to a prestigious choice”. Employers will have a central role in designing and developing qualifications and training, and will work closer to help providers identify the skills needed in the economy and local area. Strategic development funds will be available to colleges to support this.
  2. Local Skills Improvement Plans will help create the conditions for providers to deliver education and training that improves employment outcomes; by bringing employers, colleges and others providers, and local stakeholders together. In cooperation they will set out the key changes required to make technical skills training more responsive to employers needs. As a secondary this will improve the relationship and links between employers and providers in local areas, better identify the needs of a local area and provide the outcomes for participants that meet them.
  3. DfE will provide more clarity and predictability of funding for providers and empower providers to use the funds as they see fit. Accountability will focus on outcomes in turn producing higher value, employment-based provision. This will allow providers to be more flexible in responding to local and national skill needs.
  4. Higher technical education will be reformed continuously, making it a competitive alternative to a degree with a strong focus on quality, as well a focus on the training and education that employers need. The new £2.5 billion National Skills Fund, alongside T-Levels and  Institutes of Technology will be used to deliver higher-level, higher quality technical education and training through the reforms on funding and accountability mentioned above.
  5. A new ‘Lifelong Loan Entitlement’ will increase support for participants, such as those seen in academic education, and improve access to technician qualifications and bring greater equal status between further and higher qualification choices.
  6.  There will be continued support for those in need of lower levels skills to enable them to progress; support for the vulnerable, those with special educational needs and disability will be able to rely on further education to support their personal and professional development and access independent living.
  7. DfE will prioritise recruiting and training high quality teachers, providing them with training and professional development and ensuring strong links between teaching staff and industry.

The case for change

These reforms put forward by DfE aim to deliver the Prime Ministers’ ‘Life Skills Guarantee’ from September 2020 -Government’s pledge to help everyone get the skills they need at every stage of their lives. The Lifelong Loan Entitlement provides fours years of post-18 education, starting in 2025; alongside the transferred funding system will make it possible for those in a higher technical course to access loans such as those seen in university studying. This will allow people at any stage of their careers to access skills training and education; through DfE 12-16 week bootcamps, or free-qualifications for adults without full level 3 qualifications (equivalent to A-Levels), or improved apprenticeships or further education courses.

DfE has set out six main points that explain why changes are needed:

  1. Impacts of Covid-19, commitments to a net-zero by 2050 and existing the European Union (Brexit) provide an opportunity to improve the skills of people and drive this country’s success
  2. There are significant skills gaps at higher technical levels; there are not enough technicians, engineers, health and social care professionals and more to meet the needs of the country in dealing with challenges such as an ageing population, building a Green Economy. There is growing employer demand for skills across a range of sectors that higher technical education can provide, increasing national and international competitiveness in the labour market.
  3. 33% of people achieve a degree by the age of 25, but only 4% achieve a higher technical qualification by the age of 25. Only 66% of working-age graduates are in high-skilled employment. Recent analysis shows that technical courses can lead to better career outcomes; men with higher technical qualifications (level 4) earn £5,100 more on average than graduates by the age 30, and for women with higher technical qualification at level 5 earning £2,700 more by the age of 30.
  4. Colleges and independent training providers do not have enough support or incentive to offer high-value training and education due to current funding rules encouraging quantity courses over quality. This ring fencing also means providers cannot be as responsive and flexible as they need to be to meet the needs of individuals and the local economy.
  5. There is a lack of understanding of the gaps that local areas face in skills provision; employers and providers should work closer together to agree what skulls are needed to meet local labour market requirements. This would allow providers to mix the courses available and develop the infrastructure and training needed to meet the skills needs of local employers.
  6. There is a lack of student finance support and flexibility of course delivery to make courses available to everyone.

Our Thoughts: what does this mean for young people?

We welcome the reforms announced in this paper, alongside the Plan for Jobs, the foundations for addressing the youth unemployment crisis have been laid. We want to see commitment from the Government to support young people over the coming years so we do not see a repeat of the peak NEET young people in 2011 following the economic crash 3 years earlier. An additional 1000 opportunities need to be created per day to reduce the number of NEET young people to pre-pandemic levels by October 2021.

Young people are very anxious right now about their futures (Youth Voice Census, 2020); their education has been unstable and disrupted, job prospects halted, labour market participation reduced and social lives turned upside down by the coronavirus crisis. Covid-19 has exposed the weaknesses in the youth labour market and highlighted existing barriers. As a result, young people are not entering the labour market and are opting to stay in education longer, yet many of these young people want to be working and could be building their careers. The reforms put forward by DfE are a welcomed step towards alleviating some of these concerns for young people and may be able to provide opportunities they so desperately deserve and need.

Our Manifesto for Youth Employment (2019) had called for reforms to apprenticeships, as has our work with the Youth Employment Group and APPG for Youth Employment; the government must work harder to make them accessible for SMEs and young people alike, transforming the Apprenticeship Levy that encourages business to upskill their senior staff rather than senior staff and saw a drastic fall in the number of young people in apprenticeships, particularly 17-19 year olds.

Our work with the Edge foundation on the skills gap in the UK taught us that automation and shifting needs of the economy, alongside the increasingly digitalisation of the way we work has slowly widened the gap between the skills of workers and the needs of the economy. These reforms will go a long way toward alleviating this pressure on the economy. Young people told us they are unsure of the skills employers want and that they feel the right jobs, at the right level with right conditions for them, are not available in their local areas (Youth Voice Census 2020) increased diversity of qualifications of offer with focus at a local level is also great to see in these reforms.

Our APPG report (to be published on 28th January) called for university degree like loans and grants for young people studying in a non-university setting; financial hardship and other barriers get in the way of some young people accessing these opportunities. We welcome these reforms that hopefully will go a long way to supporting the most disadvantaged and remote young people across the country.

We see room for improvement in the support announced in these reforms for the most vulnerable and with protected characteristics; support and funding could go a little further to ensure the playing field is level and that their barriers to employment are acknowledged to a fuller degree, supported and funding to match.

The key to making these reforms a success is quality careers education that young people know the options available to them. There must be cross-department cooperation, particularly between the Department for Education and Department for Work and Pensions to inform Youth Hubs, Jobcentre Plus, Work Coaches, the National Careers Service and those accessing other aspects announced in the Plan for Jobs to pull this all together in a meaningful way for young people to understand. Without effective communication and sign-posting through department cooperation, the most disadvantaged, those with protected characteristics and furthest away from the labour market are at risk of missing out.

For more information, please email info@youthemployment.org.uk or call 01536 513388.

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