Chief executive of the Federation of Awarding Bodies, Tom Bewick, says policy makers should see market complexity as a major part of why the UK’s diverse awarding industry is world beating.

In the 1980s, when I did most of my growing up, the choices exercised by consumers felt pretty limited. We had only four TV channels to watch. Shopping was done mainly on the high street because online stores like Amazon, Ocado and E-bay were not invented yet. Even in the education space, the qualifications choices for school leavers were so narrow, that the vast majority of the population shunned university and went straight into the workforce (often unqualified) instead.

Market Complexity

But then came along what the economist, Chris Anderson, calls an ‘age of abundance’. World trade opened up. OECD governments, in particular, started to deregulate markets from broadcasting to financial services, as well as in education. The state reconfigured large swathes of public provision, allowing more mixed economy markets to develop in their stead. Which, of course, brings me nicely onto the main point of this article: learners and employers today enjoy significantly more choices about how, where and what they want to learn than even a generation ago.

So, it seems a little odd that the current trajectory of the government’s review of post-18 qualifications and technical education in England, feels more like winding back of the clock, to some mythical time when the state knew best and felt the need to control and provide everything. The irony, of course, is that in the 1970s, the only thing the Department for Education had any direct responsibility for was the teachers’ pension scheme. Today, the Whitehall Department has some direct or in-direct control over hundreds of academy schools; UTCs, studio schools, apprenticeship providers, further education colleges; as well as plans to introduce the first fully state procured and branded T-Levels. One could argue that we haven’t seen this level of state monopoly in technical education since Elizabeth I went on a power grab in 1563, with the passing of the Statute of Artificers (which transferred responsibility for training, wages and setting prices from the craft guilds to the newly formed English state).

Secret Sauce

The problem potentially with this top-down, command and control approach, is that it is rubbing in the completely opposite direction of the tide of history. In fact, the real ‘secret sauce’ of success of all the leading systems of technical education in the world today, is the high degree of decentralisation and devolution that is evident amongst them. The expert ‘doers’ at the frontline of technical education and apprenticeships are empowered as well as tasked with making the whole system work. In Switzerland, Germany and Austria the role of central government civil servants in the design and delivery of technical education is virtually non-existent.

Big inventions, like the world wide web, are indeed a counter cultural challenge to Big Government as the internet gives the world’s seven billion strong population a range of new educational possibilities. Increased broadband speeds has spawned niche businesses from the sale of indoor herb garden devices to online courses, invariably described as MOOCs (Massive Online Open Courses). Whether any of these products make their owners serious money is a moot point. But as Anderson argues in his seminal book ‘The Long Tail’, the price efficiency model in modern markets allows for goods to be both designed and sold in ways that in the past were simply deemed uneconomical.

Market Shifts

Take the once iconic video chain store, Blockbusters (now defunct)[*]. It is a classic example of what happens when markets shift from trading in a limited supply of a given product to almost an unlimited supply and diverse range of possibilities. Readers of a certain age will remember visiting a Blockbuster store to rent a VHS film on the weekend. Shelves were crammed with the latest releases and a limited number of foreign language films were made available. For years, this is how home movie watching was rendered possible – via physical bricks and mortar stores. But as technology developed and consumer tastes evolved, Blockbuster Video literarily went bust. Why? Because the market was expanding into the potentially limitless choices offered by ‘movies on demand’, downloaded and paid for by simply pressing a button on a household’s TV remote control. That annoying car journey on a Friday night, usually to an out of town store, became obsolete, as did the VHS!

The UK’s awarding organisations, like any other major industry, have hardly been immune from these massive shifts in consumer behaviour and technology advances in recent decades. Like all well run businesses – whether they are operating as charities or for-profit entities – they have had to adapt to wider shifts in society or decease. Indeed, students and employers have not remained static over time either. They are consumers like the rest of us and they too have developed new and changing expectations about how they want to interact with education service providers.

Pioneering

Of course, awarding organisations have responded to many of these wider shifts with pioneering roll-on-roll-off professionally certified courses available 365 days per year; unitisation; online marking and assessment portfolios; as well as proctoring schemes that allow an IT examination to be sat in Bangalore, while being verified and invigilated in Birmingham. In sum, Awarding Organisations (AOs) represent a dynamic, diverse and growing industry.

Ofqual’s annual Qualifications Market Report provides a fascinating insight into the structure of England’s regulated awarding industry. The word ‘regulated’ here is really important. AOs across the UK that want to develop and sell their qualifications to students and employers in this way must meet stringent recognition conditions drawn up by one of the UK’s four (devolved administration’s) qualifications regulators’. AOs can choose not to regulate their qualifications, although in many cases they have still decided to regulate them because employers, learners and even overseas governments have told them they like the stamp of approval and public confidence which comes with the oversight of a chief regulator. 

Regulated Marketplace

Like the selling of cars or buying children’s toys, the vast majority of qualifications operate in a regulated marketplace where certain standards have to be adhered to before they can be unleashed on potential customers. This rather simple truth blows wide open the commonly held myth that somehow qualifications are created in a vacuum or that students are unwittingly conned into taking them. In fact, the opposite is the case. The main reason why any qualifications exists at all is because at some point in time the ‘logic of the market’ has signalled a clear demand for them. The fact hundreds of qualifications exist in England with limited take up is as a result of Anderson’s long tail, where all that matters economically is the ‘hits’, not the ‘misses’, since the cost of producing a certification online that only a handful of people need to take is marginal in today’s virtual learning marketplace.

In the last academic year (2016/17) there were 12.5 million certificates issued by 155 regulated AOs – that’s an average of 34,000 certificates issued every single day. In very simple terms, these certificates act for many like a currency banknote. For thousands of individuals achieving GCSEs and A-Levels this summer; or someone with one of the many different vocational qualifications on offer; these certificates implicitly carry with them a currency store of value; either because they enable the person to advance to further education or to get a foothold on the ladder of a promising career.

Why the banknote analogy is such a good one is, because like all currencies, qualifications come in multiple denominations and exchange values. Some qualifications are valued differently by the marketplace because they are designed to achieve different ends. For example, if a student is aiming to get into university at age 18, then the value of the A-Level grades achieved will be the primary consideration for admissions tutors. But if the same 18-year old wants to pursue a career in construction, they are unlikely to be able even to work on a building site unless they have at least attained a Level 1 in ‘Health and safety in a construction environment.’ Moreover, when you look at the major growth in vocational qualifications in recent years, it has often been the result of rising public demands about what constitutes a healthy workplace and not, as some commentators would suggest, because of ‘useless’ vocational awards.

For award winning economists like Anderson, the qualifications market in the UK is just another example of the expanded cost and delivery curve of his ‘long tail’ theory.[†] In other words, it is a nonsense to talk about there being “too many qualifications” like Alison Wolf did in her review of vocational qualifications in 2011.

Wolf, and the people supporting her analysis, have all made a fundamental error: by equating “too many” of something with negative, more culturally held perceptions, of “low value” qualifications. For example, motor cars come in a diverse range of shapes and sizes. We don’t argue that there are too many motor manufacturers or branded models of vehicles in the marketplace. What we in fact accept, as consumers, is that cars will increasingly be customised according to our budget size, peculiar tastes and the ‘experience’ as drivers we are looking for in such a prized possession.

Fundamentally all cars aim do the same thing – transport people from A to B, just as all qualifications aim ultimately to progress people in their lives to some form of educational fulfilment or future employment prospects. In short, producing more of something has no correlation to its value. And value, in any case, like a new car, is as much in the eye of the beholder as any objective assessment might find. Our emerging technical education system is in danger of knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing. Perhaps we need to start looking at ‘value’ more in the context of a book binding or basket weaving qualification, which may have nothing to do with a person’s immediate job prospects, but it helps signal instead some kind of cultural value. Surely, we would welcome living in a society where our citizens can master something for simply the love of learning.

To argue that we have too many qualifications is like saying we have too many different brands of toothpaste or too much choice when we go searching for a new lawn mower online. Indeed, compared to the 1970s, according to the Food Marketing Institute, the average supermarket has evolved from stocking around 9000 products in 1975 to a staggering 47,000 goods that are available on the shelves of these stores today.

Of course, there will always be economists like Barry Schwartz, who opines about the “paradox of choice” in modern societies. He believes consumers are being bamboozled by the sheer array of what the market has to offer. Some readers may sympathise with him: anyone who has found themselves in the middle of a supermarket aisle feeling agitated and engaged in an argument (as I have)– perhaps with a significant other – about what to buy for that evening’s dinner, will probably give some credence to the concerns that Schwartz is raising. But equally, the empty shelves and bread queues of Soviet era Russia are a portent reminder of what can go wrong when the state tries to dictate to the market what it can and cannot produce. Quite literally, in this case, no food on the shelves.

Markets work best when entrepreneurs and companies are allowed to flourish and when consumers are protected by relevant regulations, as well as being empowered to make better, more informed decisions. This is precisely the market model operated by the UK’s higher education sector. Who would imagine the Department for Education, constitutionally barred from infringing on the ancient rights and privileges of our universities, stopping vice chancellors from conferring whatever courses and qualifications they see fit? Instead, the Treasury has bank rolled the exponential rise in HE student numbers. Only recently, with student and graduate debt soaring, is government now engaged in a discussion about the ‘value’ of university degrees to the individual and wider society.

There are in excess of 50,000 courses and/ or degrees individually awarded by up to 395 higher education related institutions across the UK. It equates to well over twice the number of bodies with degree conferring powers funded by government, compared to Ofqual regulated AOs which have to cater, let’s not forget, for all non-higher education provision. Around 1.5 million people graduated from British universities last year, whereas AOs in England certified over 6 million qualifications in vocational and related studies – more than threefold the output of the higher education system.

Alison Wolf, at the time of her review, a professor in Public Sector Management at King’s College London, draws no comparison between the vocational qualifications market she was reviewing and the highly atomised degree qualifications market that exists alongside them. It was almost as if she was advising Ministers while operating in a parallel universe: a mixed economy and market choice in vocational education, broadly a bad idea; open competition and market choice in higher education, a seemingly good idea.

It is this shockingly obvious contradiction (and some might say even rank hypocrisy), why government ministers, advisers and officials should perhaps think again about espousing the “too many qualifications” mantra every time they seek to engage in a debate about reforming the qualifications system. Indeed, market complexity and consumer choice are not the real villain here. Indeed, one of the ironies of the Wolf reforms, which took a disdainful view of the awarding industry as a whole, was that despite a massive two million certificates per annum reduction in the number of vocationally related qualifications being awarded since 2013, the actual number of AOs in existence and regulated by Ofqual has remained steady. Just twenty AOs have decided to close up shop or cease recognition since Wolf concluded her review. If the country really had too many qualifications we’d have seen far more AOs going to the wall, instead we have 155.

In 2018 and beyond, the debate needs to move on from continued peddling of largely myths about the perceived downsides of giving students and employers real choice in the qualifications marketplace, to addressing other far more important barriers that are getting in the way. These include what approach the government should be taking in terms of smarter regulation of technical education and apprenticeships in future. We need an honest debate and broader recognition by policymakers that recent top-down government reforms in England have led to a post-18 education and skills landscape that is increasingly muddling through and lacks any real kind of operational coherence. The apprenticeship (deregulated) EQA market, for example, versus the T-Level (planned) single-provider market is just one obvious case in point.

Conflicting Policy Objectives

It is this lack of operational coherence and conflicting policy objectives at the heart of government decision making that is now one of the biggest threats to the development of a successful technical education and skills strategy in England. While this will have to be the subject of another essay, it is nevertheless an important issue to keep in mind. Too often, vocational learners and the awarding sector in this country have been treated like guinea pigs with a lot of ill thought out policies and procurement practices, most recently expressed by the furore over T-Levels.

The government needs to stop banging on about market complexity and there being “too many qualifications”; and instead, recognise awarding bodies for what a world beating industry they really are. No other advanced economy exports as many qualifications to overseas markets as the UK awarding industry does, which includes our top universities. The British Council alone trades in excess of $130 million worth of qualifications each year, helping people abroad in a range of skills, from mastering the English language to qualifying to work in international accountancy. These are vital exports bringing Global Britain one step closer to reality as the country grapples with Brexit.

In resetting the relationship between the awarding industry and government in future it might be a good time to file away some of the tired old prejudices of the Wolf Report. The state needs to recognise that the best qualifications in the world are always co-developed, co-designed and co-delivered with the integral support of AOs, employers and students.

AOs are part of the solution to the skills and productivity crisis, not the problem.

We need a more joined up strategy across government, for how the exports of UK qualifications could be even more significantly enhanced in future. After all, in a world of increasing abundance and an expanding global middle-class, AOs form part of a dynamic industry with a lot of highly relevant, well designed and great qualifications that the world has to offer.

Tom Bewick, Chief Executive of the Federation of Awarding Bodies (FAB)

Copyright © 2018 FE News

[*] Apparently, there is just one Blockbuster store, operating as a franchise, still in existence https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-45175194

[†] For a good summary explanation of Chris Anderson’s long tail theory read https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Long_tail

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