From education to employment

Course cuts at Universities and technical reform in FE: Thoughts on the current state of play

Hannah McCarthy, a Post-Graduate Researcher and PhD Candidate in the Manchester Institute of Education at the University of Manchester

What links recent events within post-compulsory education policy and what can we learn from them? Weaving the two case studies together to explore the contemporary post-compulsory landscape in England.

As both a Researcher and a former Further Education practitioner, I explore the relationship between technical education reforms and the professional identities of those who work within an FE sector beset by marketisation and policy churn. Watching media events unfold on Monday as Sheffield Hallam announced the axing of its English Literature degree course, I couldn’t help but reflect on a few of the comparisons between this announcement and the current trajectory of FE.

It is worth stating, however, that Sheffield Hallam certainly isn’t the first and sadly won’t be the last HEI in England to axe humanities subjects whilst operating in an outcome-based, market-driven context. Commentators and public figures are correct in responding to Sheffield Hallam’s decision with strong condemnation. Citing the need to get their graduates into “highly-skilled professions” within 6 months, Sheffield Hallam reinforces the simply false, bizarre notion that obtaining an English degree is “low-value” within society.  As educators should know, arts subjects possess vast value, not merely because they equip graduates with meaningful, valuable skills of research, analysis, understanding and communication, to name but a few. However, this article attempts to articulate opposition to the changes based upon other grounds. 

Most importantly, as an institution, Sheffield Hallam have also further contributed to a climate in which humanities courses are becoming increasingly inaccessible to working-class students and those who come from a background of social disadvantage. 

Steamrolling Ahead with the “Levelling-Up” Agenda

What perhaps seems most significant about this case is the timing of this change. Monday’s announcement occurred against the policy backdrop of the UK government steamrolling ahead with the “Levelling-Up” Agenda and its associated rhetoric of addressing regional inequalities. Yet, this announcement shows once more that researchers and practitioners must question just exactly how an education system governed by market-principles enables the ‘levelling-up’ of choice and opportunity for all.

As an institution situated in a city with rates of child poverty of 26% and where 40% of the student body come from within 25 miles of Sheffield, this reform will work to further limit the access of less privileged students from across South Yorkshire to the culturally important vibrancy and dynamism of study within arts subjects. As sociological and educational research consistently shows, working-class students will often select a university based on a variety of factors rather than prestige. Whether choosing a HEI due to connections to their home, wider community or even class size, free-market protestations of ‘students who wish to study English Literature can simply take their custom elsewhere’ simply don’t cut it.

As both HE and FE sectors operate within a policy context focused upon financialisation and increasing pressure to fill skills gaps within the labour market, very little is done within research and commentary to connect the dots between the field of HE and FE. Similar rhetoric and experiences can be evidenced throughout FE, where concepts of ’employability’ have long been hard-wired into the funding and management of provision. I am not advocating here for an education system which fails to support our young people’s transition into the labour market. However, with T-Level reform, those choosing ‘non-academic’ routes are funnelled into a choice of courses which have greater employer influence than ever, designed with the purpose of redressing skills gaps within the labour market.  

Equality of Access and Opportunity at the Foundation of the Nation’s Policies

Equality of access and opportunity should be at the very foundation of our nation’s policies. What we have instead is an educational environment in which the pressures to evidence ‘meaningful’ outcomes and meet ideologically designed destination metrics works to restrict opportunities for poorer students, pushing individuals into careers currently valued by the labour market. In such a climate, the government’s methods of addressing inequalities of opportunity and “Level-Up” parts of England have to once more be called into question. I am not blanketly opposed to an increase in opportunities for skilled work within communities. Far from it. What I am concerned with, however, is the restriction of opportunity for young people brought about by the policy climate, pigeonholing aspirations into careers which generate greater outcomes of economic growth and higher league-table rankings. 

Amongst other aspects, what links the two cases together is the reduction in choice for those who may not attain high-A-Level grades, or for those who wish to pursue an alternative post-compulsory route which isn’t dominated purely by exams and university progression. Here, such consequences of reform are disproportionately burdened by poorer, working-class students.

By Hannah McCarthy, a Post-Graduate Researcher and PhD Candidate in the Manchester Institute of Education at the University of Manchester.

This article was written by the author as a chance to prompt debate and discussion around these events. The author encourages those who for whom this article interests or for researchers and practitioners with similar concerns to contact her via Twitter or LinkedIn.

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