Alison Wolf is the Sir Roy Griffiths Professor of Public Sector Management at King's College London and is a visiting professorial fellow at the Institute of Education, University of London. Her new monograph for the IEA, An Adult Approach to Further Education, was published this week.
England once had a system of education for adults that was highly diverse, locally responsive, and an avenue for social mobility. No longer. As I explain in a new monograph published by the IEA, our further and adult education has been laid waste by Soviet-style central planning.
At a conservative estimate, £2 billion a year is being wasted, spent on activities which do nothing for either the economy or individual learners. Some of this is the cost of quangos which change with dizzying speed; more than 20 have come or gone in the last four years alone. Some is the administrative burden imposed by government on colleges and training providers. Much of it is because government sponsors and demands narrow micro-managed courses with no labour market value at all. The total is well over a third of total current spending on the sector.
To understand what is happening, compare our further and our higher education systems. Our universities are world-leaders, with only the US topping us in international rankings, and highly successful earners of foreign exchange, recruiting overseas students in ever-increasing numbers. British students - undergraduate and graduate - are prepared to pay sizeable fees, because they value the courses on offer.
In further education, by contrast, fee income is tiny. Local companies, which once commissioned customised training from colleges, or sponsored day-release students, rarely do so today.
Most of the adult courses which are now funded lead to low-level vocational qualifications, designed to tight central government standards, or to the Government’s own basic skills qualifications. Repeated research studies, commissioned by government departments in denial, show that these qualifications are generally of no economic value whatsoever. They do, however, contribute to the qualification targets by which the government measures its own success.
The current regime stultifies individual lives, and the waste is colossal: £2 billion a year would pay for Crossrail in a decade, or fund 300,000 new apprenticeships, or offset the increases in employers’ National Insurance contributions that are currently proposed. The upside is that further education is ripe for enormous improvement. Moving even a proportion of that money into programmes that someone actually wants would leave large numbers of people happier and better off.