Last month, Radio 4 aired ‘The Forgotten Half’ – a shocking indictment of how we are failing young people who choose non-university routes into employment while prizing university above everything else.
In the radio documentary, Paul Johnson, director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, investigated how other kinds of further education and training have been neglected, and how public and political attention is far more focused on the university route.
He looked at an independent report published earlier this year – the Augar Review – which explored all post-18 education in England, including further education colleges, technical training and apprenticeships.
However, Johnson reported, all the headlines about the review focussed mainly on its findings and recommendations about university, while ignoring its many findings and recommendations about non-university options.
National obsession with universities
Professor Alison Wolf, who produced the Remaking Tertiary Education report in 2016, and was also involved in the Augar Review, told Johnson that this university-focussed response was “typical of our national obsession with universities” and said the general public was “completely fixated on university”.
But what the report found on non-university education is seriously important and deserves attention. On its release, the review’s lead Philip Auger made a statement in which he compared the “the drop in part time technical and vocational education” to the “relentless, universal progress” in higher education, and said:
England is a nation of two halves when it comes to post-18 education. What of the 50% of young people who do not go to university?
The numbers revealed by his report definitely point to a system that values one group far above the other. Last year over £8 billion supported 1.2 million undergraduates in English universities compared to just £2 billion supporting 2.2 million people in further education (FE) – a huge underinvestment in those choosing not to go to university.
“Because it’s invisible in the media, politicians don’t need to worry about it, because it’s not going to effect their votes,” explained Sally Dicketts, chief executive of Activate Learning, pointing to one of the reasons this funding imbalance has been able to persist.
She also highlighted the difference between students who are taught by these sorts of institutions – often from less well-off backgrounds, sometimes even homeless and / or sofa surfing – compared to those at university, often from better-off backgrounds with more supportive families.
Is it a surprise that those with less of a voice in the public discourse are less looked after by the public purse?
Repercussions throughout the system
This underfunding has repercussions throughout the system, from on the ground in the classroom to the national stage.
According to the Augar Review, teachers in FE colleges are paid on average less than their counterparts in schools, while funding levels are inadequate to cover essential maintenance or to provide modern facilities.
At a national level, the sector has little to spend on things like mission groups – collection of universities united around a purpose or theme – and is consequently under-reported in the media and under-represented at Westminster.
According to the Augar Review, the consequence of this has been decades of neglect and a loss of status and prestige among learners, employers and the public at large.
Funding isn’t the only thing “forgotten half” is missing out on. Johnson highlighted what schools value in his radio documentary too, pointing to how they measure and promote the statistics around what universities their students move onto, not the vocational and apprenticeship courses.
He also points out that schools with sixth forms have an in-built incentive to retain students for A-Levels and then send them on to university, rather than truly providing impartial advice.
This is reflected in careers guidance on the ground in schools: AllAboutSchoolLeavers’ research shows most school staff know far more about university compared to other options.
High turnover of ministers and civil servants in the Department for Education
The documentary also looked at a deeper, more inherent issue in the education system: policy coming from the top is developed by politicians and civil servants who have only experienced the more privileged side of this “nation of two halves” – university.
Alison Wolf pointed to this phenomenon – coupled with a high turnover of ministers and civil servants in the Department for Education – resulting in a situation where no one has the time or the experience to get to grips with the complex FE system.
“Put this together with the inevitable ignorance that comes from never having experienced this part of our education system yourself,” she said of the issues of turnover and experience among education policy makers.
“They’ve all wanted to do the job well but don’t have the have any basic knowledge of how the area they’re dealing with actually operates.”
Those policy makers would do well to read the entire Augar Review, paying close attention to its findings around further education, rather than paying heed to the university-centric headlines.
Emma Finamore, Editor, AllAboutSchoolLeavers.co.uk