Rob Halfon, Chairman of Commons Education Select Committee

Robert Halfon, Chair of the Education Committee, keynote speech on a Revolution in Further and Higher Education To Eradicate Skills Gap And Deliver Social Justice For All. His speech will be delivered at 9am on Monday 5 February 2018 at the Centre for Social Justice (CJS).

I’m here today for two reasons:

  • Social Justice and
  • Better Skills.

Both have been my compass since I entered politics. I can’t think of better proponents of these goals than the three organisations that have organised this event.
The CSJ is a tireless advocate for our very poorest citizens. It brings voice to those who have none; hope to those who are in our peripheral vision; and social justice to the heart of British politics.
The Open University is a bastion of social justice too. It is an outstanding institution of learning that provides opportunities to those who may otherwise have fallen by the wayside.
The Learning and Work Institute is an earnest and longstanding devotee to learning, in work progression and personal development.

We have made major progress on education. However, we can build an even brighter future by addressing our skills problem.

There is no doubt that education has improved.
We now have a system that encourages schools to innovate and raise their game. Since 2010, 1.9 million more pupils are in good or outstanding schools. We are stripping out many qualifications that hold no real currency with employers. And we have some of the finest universities in the world.
We can go even further. But we can only do this if we address our skills problem.
Over a third of workers in England do not hold suitable qualifications for the jobs they do. Around nine million of all working aged adults in England have low basic skills.
Employers are crying out for skills in a whole range of different sectors, from electricity, gas and water to construction, transport and manufacturing.
28% of jobs taken by 16-24-year-olds could be at risk of automation by the 2030s.
An enormous wave of lost opportunity is about to come crashing down on the next generation of employees – staggeringly, a third of England’s 16-19-year olds have low basic skills.

Our skills problem is a social justice issue.

While the lack of skills in society ultimately touch us all, our most disadvantaged individuals pay the highest price.
They have the most to gain from skilling their way out of deprivation, but are the least likely to do so.

This is plain to see across our schools, where millions of disadvantaged children are on a collision course with failure. Just 33% of pupils on free school meals get five good GCSEs, compared with 61% of their better off peers.
Without a solid nucleus of skills, it is hard to thrive in the jobs market. Instead, the most likely outcome for these individuals is a grim concoction of wage stagnation, fading hope and inertia.
We can change this.

To spark a skills revolution, we must first transform the way we view education

It is customary to talk about building “parity of esteem” between technical and academic education.
But pursuing “parity of esteem” reinforces the split that exists between them. It implies a division between the two routes when in fact, they should be seen as intertwined - two parts of the same system of self-improvement, and both equally well supported.
Education should be a continuum of learning.

This means:

  • One train-line with a series of academic and technical stops;
  • The ability to jump back on and travel to other stations to build credits and reskill or upskill; and
  • All without fuss within a seamless infrastructure of opportunity.

How do we do this?

First, let’s look at post-16 technical education

The government is starting to create more connectivity between academic and technical education through its post-16 Skills Plan.

The Plan will produce a much smaller number of qualifications (T-levels) in 15 different clusters of skills. These qualifications will have a standard currency that the thousands of existing qualifications currently lack. And pupils will be able to move between technical and academic routes through bridging provisions.

But we can do more…

We need to make sure everybody gets the basics right.
Around nine million of all working aged adults in England have low basic skills. And a third of 16-19-year-olds have low basic skills.
Literacy and numeracy are the bedrock of academic and vocational success. Without them, it is hard to build a skills-set that will unlock higher value jobs.

FE can be a vital player in helping the current and next generation build the basic skills they need. However, rather than swallow valuable resources by insisting on retakes for those who fail English and Maths (with failure rates of over two thirds in each case), we should be offering these individuals functional skills courses to improve their basic literacy and numeracy.

We should also capitalise on the enormous potential of apprenticeships.

Apprenticeships can bring excellent returns. 90 per cent of apprentices go on to a job or further education.
But, all apprenticeships must deliver a top-rate return. 48 per cent of apprentices are not in good or outstanding provision. The government should urgently review the sector to ensure we are providing quality as well as quantity.
We also need to be smarter about how we use the new Apprenticeships Levy. We could, for example, introduce a taper allowing employers to pay smaller contributions if they develop apprenticeships for disadvantaged pupils, and if they address skills shortages.
Once we are clear about what works best, we could then make a powerful case for expanding the levy.

We need more balance in our higher-level offering so that there are pathways into intermediate and higher technical education

We have become obsessed with full academic degrees in this country.

We are creating a higher education system that overwhelmingly favours academic degrees, while intermediate and higher technical offerings are comparatively tiny.
The labour market does not need an ever-growing supply of academic degrees. Between a fifth and a third of our graduates take non-graduate jobs. The “graduate premium” varies wildly according to subject and institution. For many, the returns are paltry.

Instead, there is enormous opportunity in rebalancing higher education.

There is a strong need for intermediate skills. There are skills shortages in several sectors. And there are millions of people who want to get on in life – preferably without a lead weight of £50,000 dragging from their feet.

If we are going to continue to lavishly furnish universities with taxpayers’ money, we need to think about how universities can specialise in these areas. Existing universities that do not provide a good return on academic courses could reinvent themselves as centres of technical excellence.

And FE colleges, which are ideally place to offer flexible and local options for those who need this, could be better supported and incentivised to deliver intermediate and higher technical courses.

Either way, we must urgently redirect some of this funding towards courses and degrees that have a technical focus.

We can also be creative about blending technical and academic education. Degree apprenticeships are a remarkable example of a vehicle that does just that.

Degree apprenticeships could be the crown jewel in a revamped technical offering.
Students earn as they learn, they do not incur mountains of debt, and they get good quality jobs at the end. They also help us meet our skills deficit, so they benefit society too.
I want to see more universities offering these apprenticeships. There are currently just 11,600 degree apprenticeships. I hope that one day, half of all university students are doing them.
The government should incentivise their growth. One way to do this would be to ringfence some of the enormous public subsidy that still goes to universities, so that universities can only draw down on this protected funding stream if they offer degree apprenticeships.
We could also redirect some of the £860 million that goes on outreach. After all, the most meaningful form of outreach is a tangible opportunity to learn and get a job, which degree apprenticeships deliver.
However, this is not just an issue of supply. Few families are aware of degree apprenticeships, especially from disadvantaged families where the returns could be most profound. Both the existence of apprenticeships and the value they bring should be hard-wired into careers advice.

Academic study at universities should be just as accessible, regardless of background

For individuals to make informed choices about academic courses, we must be transparent about the return they will bring.

The way we recognise universities is all wrong. We place far too much emphasis on research excellence, and not enough on teaching quality and employability.

Universities are an integral part of the machinery that feeds into the jobs market. It is reasonable to hold them accountable for the extent to which they prepare students for the world of work.

To do this, the Government will need to generate sophisticated data on destinations following graduation, so that prospective candidates can make informed choices. And in future, participation in the Teaching Excellence Framework must include all universities.
In part, the problem is also nestled away in the system of incentives we have created for our universities. They are rewarded disproportionately for the research they do, rather than the teaching they offer or the employability skills they confer. Membership of the Russell Group is widely seen as a proxy for elite performance, and the branding power this brings is substantial.

While some Russell Group universities deserve their recognition as elite institutions, others appear to trade well on their brands, while their less reputable counterparts remain unrecognised.
Out of the 59 higher education providers that received a gold standard in the government’s Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework, 51 were not in the Russell Group.
Portsmouth University came top of the Economist’s “value-added” university rankings, which compares graduates’ wages with what they would have been expected to earn if they had not gone to that university.
Aston University came second in the same rankings.
And both received gold in the government’s Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework.
These universities deserve all the prestige we can muster. They are powerful engines for social mobility and put rocket-boosters on the life chances of those who may otherwise have stagnated.
It is time for a broader measure of success. The Office for Students should publish a league table that places more weight on teaching quality and employability.

To build a continuum of learning, we must also make it easy for people to learn flexibly throughout their lives

For those who are not able to build high value skills the first time around, or whose skills have been wiped out by a fast-changing labour market, it is important that our system offers a way back.
As Open University’s model clearly demonstrates, flexible learning can be a powerful vehicle for social justice.
Its students are not required to have completed A-levels (or equivalent qualifications), and so prior achievement is not a hindrance to personal development. It is able to reach some of the hardest niches within our system and is the primary provider of higher education in UK prisons and secure units. Its flexible online learning model makes higher education possible for those who live in areas where there is no local university.
The mere idea of taking one penny away from the flexible/earn and learn sector, while continuing to prop up mediocrity in some of the traditional sector, is scandalous.
Flexibility is a vital part of continuing learning. We need to protect the sector and we can start by ring-fencing the Part-time Premium element of the Higher Education Funding Council’s Widening Participation funding allocation.
It is also vital that we create clear routes from further education into higher education. These could be supported through ‘Next Step’ loans for individual higher education modules.

Closing comments

Good education is the high-speed train that propels social justice. But it needs a proper line. And a series of stops that lead to thriving, dynamic places of opportunity. Not deserted platforms and decaying stations.
For that to happen, we must craft a more fluid and balanced system.
And we must build excellence all along the way.
I invite you all to join me in driving this vital agenda forward.

Robert Halfon, Chair of the Education Committee

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