Education: Treating Students Fairly (Economic Affairs Committee Report) - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:10 pm on 16th January 2019.

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Photo of Lord Layard Lord Layard Labour 4:10 pm, 16th January 2019

My Lords, I thank our great leader for the way in which he led us to produce what is, I think, a landmark report. For me, its most landmark feature concerns non-graduate vocational education, so I want to talk about our three main proposals in that area.

As we all know, Britain is good at higher education and bad at non-graduate vocational education, and this has big economic effects. Our graduates earn salaries similar to those of graduates in other countries, but our non-graduates earn very much less than our competitors. In my view, that is the main explanation for the greater wage inequality and lower productivity in our country. It is our Achilles heel, and the reason we are so bad at it is the way we fund it. The way we fund non-graduate vocational education is disgraceful and discriminatory, and it is worth comparing it with what happens to somebody who goes down the academic route. If you go down that route, you can be sure of a place at every stage. If you make yourself qualified, someone will take you in, and they are able to do that because they are automatically funded for your education. There is no cap on the number of people who can go down the academic route.

By contrast, if you want to go down the technical route, you face capping at every stage. If an FE college wants to run a course, it goes to the Education and Skills Funding Agency and is often told that the money is not available. That is partly because the agency’s budget is limited—we have heard how savagely it has been cut. Therefore, in my view, the number one recommendation which I commend to the House is that the funding of further education should be uncapped. If it were, we could liberate further education in the same way as we have liberated the universities. The overarching aim has to be to bring all non-graduates up to the vocational equivalent of at least A-level, otherwise known as level 3. That should be the central purpose of the liberation of further education.

That brings me to my second point, which concerns apprenticeships. Most non-graduates want to gain their qualifications on a part-time basis, earning at the same time as learning. This has always been one of the main avenues of social mobility in our country. I find it extraordinary that when people lament the decline of social mobility, they do not point at the correct reason for it, or certainly one of the key reasons. The top challenge for apprenticeship policy is to expand the number of apprenticeships up to level 3. Degree apprenticeships are of course a great idea, but it is even more important that we have apprenticeships at lower levels for as many people as possible so that there is a seamless path all the way up the part-time route, similar to the one that exists along the full-time route. Just to ram home the point: I had the privilege of working for the Robbins committee when I was young and the Robbins principle was that everyone qualified to proceed to the next stage should be able to do so. That is what we have done with the academic route but we have never done it with the vocational route; we should be doing so.

To build a system where this is possible will require a lot of leadership. We are talking about a massive change in the way we do things. At present, this sector has little clout and gets pushed around at will. It needs an organisation to champion it. That is why our committee proposed a council that would champion the sector. For the council to have clout it has to be a channel for the money: it should be a funding council for further education and for those apprenticeships not funded through the levy. It also needs to be responsible for generating enough apprenticeships for non-graduates to provide the seamless route that I am talking about.

The elite of our country is challenged as never before in recent times. It is charged with ignoring the needs of ordinary people. There is no area in which this neglect by the elite has been as shocking as in our approach to the post-school education of half our population—those who do not go into higher education. I hope the Minister can tell us how the Government plan to address the three proposals that I have mentioned: first, an uncapped system of further education; secondly, a seamless system of apprenticeship with special emphasis on the lower levels; and thirdly, a funding council for further education and apprenticeship.

Can the Minister assure us that these topics will not be at the bottom of the list but will be priorities in the Government’s review? They are so important to the national interest. Can he assure us that this sector will not, yet again, get the short end of the stick?