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28 September 2018updated 08 Sep 2021 1:56pm

Post-18 education is in need of an overhaul

At the Association of Colleges, we are arguing for some fundamental reforms to realign post-18 education with the benefits it offers students and society. 

By David Hughes

Higher education in England is becoming increasingly expensive for individuals. Meanwhile, questions are being raised around the return on investment for the Treasury, and employers are finding it increasingly difficult to recruit skilled people. That’s why the Association of Colleges is calling for a radical re-design of England’s post-18 education system.

Our paper – 2030 and beyond: an upgraded post-18 education system – includes proposals for a number of new measures, including a new technical higher education offer delivered flexibly and locally in partnership with employers, and the introduction of a new maintenance grant for full and part-time students, linked to the current free school meals threshold. But it is our calls to reintroduce a minimum entry requirement for under-21s taking up BA and BSc degrees that seems to have got lots of people talking. 

Research released earlier this year showed that the number of unconditional offers made by universities jumped by 32 per cent in just one year. There were less than 3,000 unconditional offers in 2013, and more than 50,000 in 2017 – almost a quarter of students now receive at least one offer that doesn’t depend on achieving certain qualification grades.

There are several reasons for this: in 2014, the government removed the cap on the number of students a HE institution could recruit, meaning that more popular universities have been able to grow. Others, facing a demographic dip, have struggled to recruit to achieve their targets. Making unconditional offers has been one tactic to boost recruitment.

Colleges and schools are reporting that many students with an unconditional offer “take their foot off the pedal”, and why wouldn’t they? The qualification is often a means to an end, so once the end has been achieved it becomes irrelevant. The impact, though, is that the learning stops, possibly making it more difficult to achieve at university, and having no qualification at that level might hinder future prospects.

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The reintroduction of minimum entry standards (they were part of the system in the past) would mean lower numbers embarking on three-year degrees, but our proposals would present them with a high-quality offer which they can access more locally and flexibly. A true choice for all young people and accessible to every adult as well. AoC is not the first to propose minimum entry standards – the Browne Review did so in 2010 but this was kicked into the long grass as governments came and went.

However, our proposals recognise that higher education is not just about living on a campus at a university and studying full-time. In England, there are almost 150,000 students currently studying higher education in over 200 colleges across England – many in places which do not benefit from a nearby university. This higher education in colleges is long-standing and has high student satisfaction, attributed to the higher number of contact hours, smaller groups sizes, the specialist focus, links to the local labour market and support from employers.

Traditional three-year academic Bachelor’s degrees, usually residential, are great for many, but they are not right for everybody. That is why, as part of our report, we are also proposing a re-designed higher technical qualification to rival the traditional BA/BSc route, building on and incorporating what already works, whilst partnering with employers to ensure the qualifications meet the needs of the local and national labour markets.

We also believe that post-18 should not just be about 18-21-year olds. We are calling for a system that is truly committed to lifelong learning, allowing people to be educated, trained and re-trained at any stage of their life. People are living longer and working longer, in industries that are rapidly changing or being created – yet most people do not return to education when they leave it in their early 20s and funding has resulted in over one million fewer people learning post-18 every year compared with a decade ago.

Money is also still a real barrier to entry. Until 2016, England had a more generous maintenance grant system than Scotland. We believe it is now England’s time to catch up and mirror the Scottish policy of providing grants to students from families on or below the free school meals threshold (currently £20,000 or below) – including for those choosing to study part-time. This would allow more people to study, with the extra costs being offset by lower student loan write offs if the repayment term is also extended to 35 years or even longer. Given the ever-increasing length of our working lives, this seems eminently sensible and somewhat inevitable.

More than anything, though, we want government to be bold, to be ambitious and to do more than tinker around the edges of a system that needs root and branch reform. I believe that government is serious about doing something big, and if they do, I’d remind them that colleges must be central if reform is to be wide-reaching, fair, and have a real impact.

David Hughes is the chief executive of the Association of Colleges.