For over a year the sector has been entrenched in unpuzzling an ambitious slate of reforms. With unnerving haste, the UK government is delivering an untested Post-16 education model which is big-state and high-concept, and which threatens to diminish user choice by reducing variety and competition in accreditation, reinforce failure rather than success (see GCSE resit policy), and potentially create a massive risk of exams system failure.
This is all bafflingly bureaucratic at a time when the labour market is increasingly fluid. Digitisation, changing workforce structures and alternative pedagogical models mean that post-16 learners, educators and employers should now be defining their own learning agenda.
It’s likely that once the monolithic Post-16 skills framework is eventually landed it will probably have to be quickly scrapped in order to adapt to the pace of change and diversity both in the fragmented economy and the learning landscape.
Sometimes it seems that system redesign has become an end it itself… What was the objective again?
In The Second Curve, business guru Charles Handy writes: "Markets are useful places. They are the easiest and best ways to balance supply and demand. Without them we would have to leave it to the bureaucrats to do the balancing task. As the Soviet Union eventually realised, bureaucrats don't do it all that well.”
So, on a recent visit to China, a nation usually regarded as the epitome of officialdom, I was surprised to discover that red-tape has been kicked into the long-grass when it comes to a vocational skills strategy that is refreshingly market-led.
First of all, what has the skills agenda in China got to do with us in the UK?
Well, the challenges are remarkably similar; China has an over-supply of graduates, but improving public perception of technical learning pathways and achieving parity of esteem with HE will be even harder for the Chinese. The one-child policy means it’s every parent’s dream for their only child to go to university, and there’s 3,000 in mainland China to choose from! Meanwhile, there is a desperately low-skilled workforce at the other end of the scale. The middle has gone missing, and as consumer spending and industrial output stumbles it’s those Level 4 & 5 skilled technicians and entrepreneurs that are now urgently needed to fuel China’s next growth engine.
China’s priority is to create bridges between academic and technical platforms to enhance mobility for learners, and advance a world-class skills-based education system. Sound familiar?
To address these fundamental issues, the Chinese government has had a revolution in its own thinking, pivoting authority to lower levels of government and allowing innovation to rise-up from education practitioners.
Following new government initiatives such as Made in China 2025 and One Belt One Road, local governments across the country are busy engaging school and industry leadership to explore innovative approaches to upgrading vocational skills education.
The message is stark; those 3,000 university institutions face an uncertain future, but one that they can participate in shaping.
It’s likely that only a third of them will survive as hubs of academia, a third will focus on technical skills and a third may have to go. As to how that is achieved, the practitioners themselves will work it out.
My navigator around China’s skills conundrum, Brian Yang, Director of the prestigious Telfort Institute of Business told me: “From our perspective, we see China becoming a global leader in the development and deployment of skill based vocational education that operates in harmony with its academic institutions to address the diverse demand in its evolving economy for human capital”.
In an approach which resembles one of the UK Government’s more interesting ideas, that is for all local areas to shape and commission training provision linked to regional economic priorities, (a policy which has disappointingly been scrubbed), the plan in China is to have its institutions reflect the differences in regional economic development across the country, whilst remaining substantially employer-driven.
This means funding experimental local initiatives that are all inspired, organized and implemented at the school level, with governments awarding financing to support new or upgraded facilities, state of the art equipment and staff development. Crucially, the government will support innovation occurring within the existing vocational and academic systems, rather than have centralist mandarins hammer home a package of politically-driven reforms from Beijing.
Brian Yang and his colleagues believe that China's solution will emerge quickly from the large number of grassroots initiatives already underway or planned.
Of course, China is at the outset of tackling this complex educational challenge, as are we, and I’m not an advocate of ‘lifting and shifting’ educational models from other countries, whether its Germany, Switzerland, Finland… or China. But their approach does offer a compelling alternative to the bureaucratic foot-dragging and political impediments that threaten to stifle innovation in the UK system. And for me, it also blurred any preconceptions I may have had over where state-led or market-based ideas and policies are likely to originate.
Rob May, CEO at the Association of Business Executives and Non-Exec Director, Federation of Awarding Bodies