There was much chat online yesterday about the Policy Exchange’s report on improving higher level professional and technical education Higher, Further, Faster, More. Whilst the report sets out some significant challenges and is fairly wide ranging in its recommendations, the focus has, perhaps inevitably, been on the financial implications for the higher education sector. The report proposes significant cuts to central higher education funding with the funds being diverted to further education. The suggestion is that institutional reserves could be used to meet all or some of the costs of funding high cost subjects and widening participation.
The response from the higher education sector was to defend the current funding regime and to highlight errors in the financial aspects of the report. This isn’t entirely unexpected – in these financially challenging times any organisation or body whose funding is threatened is likely to react in the same way and attempt to protect what it has. The question is how that message is interpreted elsewhere. The sector has a reputation in the Treasury for being feather bedded and reference to the reserves held by the sector, whether accurate or not, will do little to refute that reputation. Further it is easy to dismiss responses suggesting maintaining the status quo and even those highlighting errors in the report (‘they would say that, wouldn’t they?’) even if the arguments are strong and factually correct. There is, however, little doubt that the FE sector in England is in financial dire straits and something needs to be done. In the circumstances looking at the pot a seemingly rich relation has is natural.
It is not a matter of ‘either/or’ for the higher and further education sectors – they fulfil different needs and the country needs both. What has been missed is the opportunity to highlight the areas where universities and FE colleges are already working together, to address some of the challenges highlighted in the Policy Exchange report. At the recent HE and FE Show, Stephen Jones from BIS advocated the need for HE and FE to work more closely together and gave a strong hint that this need would be part of upcoming reforms. There is evidence of collaboration and working towards common goals. Maddalaine Ansell, the Chief Executive of the Universities Alliance, highlighted several in her presentation at the same conference – collaborative approaches supporting the local communities’ needs. And yet there was little mention of such collaboration in the responses to the report that I’ve seen.
A protectionist approach is sometimes needed but here was an opportunity to demonstrate that the higher education sector is aware of the challenges that FE faces, is aware of the need to develop skills for UK business and industry and is taking steps to meet those challenges and requirements. An opportunity to demonstrate that universities are at the heart of regional economies, working with local FE Colleges, to help meet the needs of the local communities. An opportunity to demonstrate that the sector is in tune with Government policy and thinking. An opportunity missed.