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The Kerslake Collection | Opportunity, access and skills

FE-HE collaborationto support a place 

In 2019 – just after the work of the Civic University Commission, and just before the pandemic led us to revise so many ideas about the way institutions interact with their communities – Bob Kerslake, together with Chris Husbands and Natalie Day, co-authored a pamphlet with the provocative title ‘Making Universities Matter’. The pamphlet looked across the landscape of post-18 education and set out a framework in which universities might work better, more creatively, more systematically and more constructively with further-education colleges. The pamphlet outlined common interests between universities and further-education colleges, arguing that they should be natural allies: they are both concerned with the education of adults, both concerned with the interrelationship of knowledge and skills, and both provide anchor functions in the education and economic systems of their localities. But too often relationships are poor. Competition trumps collaboration. Mistrust drives out constructive engagement. Suspicion replaces partnership. In this essay, we want to pick up some of the ideas that Lord Kerslake championed, in which learners and localities – not structures – come first. And we reflect on them in the context of current thinking about a coherent tertiary system for education, which at the least starts at age 18, but which might be better starting at age 16.

Our starting point is that, quite simply, universities and colleges have complementary missions, which not only allow and support the need for collaboration, but which require them to collaborate in order to deliver important parts of their core purposes. The Civic University Network puts place – cities, localities, regions – at the heart of this thinking, and invited universities, as a key part of their ambitions, to do the same. If we are to maximise the impact universities can have on their places through effective working with others, the complementarity of mission between universities and colleges becomes central to the policy debate about how places can thrive along with the people and employers who live there.

It’s easy to assert that universities and colleges have complementary missions, and it perhaps seems unexceptionable. But the recognition of complementarity on its own has not been sufficient to drive deep collaboration in many places. It’s striking that while many universities have now developed Civic University Agreements, relatively few have focused extensively on collaboration with further-education colleges, and even fewer have been co-signed by universities and colleges. There are notable exceptions, often reliant on enlightened institutional leadership or specific policy interventions. But, in general, universities and further-education colleges seem to exist in parallel rather than complementary systems. Locally, universities sometimes see colleges as suppliers of students, and sometimes as vehicles for outsourced or franchised provision, while colleges feel that they are frozen out of opportunities. Sometimes there are alignments of interest; often there are frustrations. And there are unhelpful perceptions of hierarchy and lack of respect, which make genuine collaboration difficult. Nationally, policy has far too often separated the destinies of universities and colleges, requiring no true collaboration by driving competition between them, and failing to recognise the benefits of policies that would bring them together. 

There are a number of reasons why that might change in England. Around the world, there is increasing interest in developing more coherent tertiary systems. At least since the global financial crash of 2007, the relationship between rising higher-education participation and productivity has been broken. The impacts of the consequential low economic growth on inequality and general living standards have ricocheted around political systems, and thus back into education and training policy. After two generations in which governments have focused attention on their university systems, concern has mounted about the impacts of higher-education expansion on those who do not or cannot attend university. Belatedly, governments have recognised that economic success and social cohesion depend on developing the skills of all young people and adults, including those left behind by structural economic change and technological innovation. The 21st-century economy needs skill development across the population and across the age range. Without that, there is no hope of addressing the productivity crisis, and the social fissures that have opened up as a result first of globalisation and then the financial crash will widen unsustainably. In the UK, Scotland and Wales have already made progress towards coherent tertiary systems. In Wales, higher-education policy adviser Ellen Hazelkorn’s report on further and higher education in 2016 argued that:

‘A single oversight body for tertiary education makes sense at a time when nations were increasingly devoting more policy attention to those who do not attend university, and thus looking increasingly at developing ‘more coherent’ post-compulsory systems.’

The Welsh Commission for Tertiary Education and Research, established as a result of Hazelkorn’s report, started work formally in August 2024. 

Further afield, Australia is making decisive progress towards a tertiary system. The Labor Government has now accepted the final report of the Australian Universities Accord process, which concluded in December 2023, by saying that: ‘The major problems we face – including threats to our social cohesion – are ultimately problems for which a big part of the answer is tertiary education.’ England too has begun – albeit more haltingly – to think about tertiary education more coherently. The Augar ‘Review of post-18 education and funding’ sets out the simple and stark observation that ‘Post-18 (or ”tertiary”) education in England is a story of both care and neglect, depending on whether students are amongst the 50% of young people who participate in higher education or the rest.’ But the reception of the Augar Report – commissioned by Theresa May after the reverses suffered by the Conservative Party in the 2017 election – demonstrates the deep challenges facing reform in this area. Government attention has so far focused on the higher-education funding elements of Augar’s recommendations, rather than on those recommendations calling for the return of maintenance grants for the less well-off and a boost to FE funding, or the infrastructure changes required to make progress towards a coherent post-18 system – perhaps another example of the gap between what Augar saw as ‘care’ and ‘neglect’. 

Nonetheless, change is needed. Further-education funding remains extraordinarily tight, while after a decade in which universities have enjoyed relative economic security, the combined impacts of flat undergraduate fees and high inflation are putting the current higher-education funding regime under enormous stress. The offer at age 18 for those with strong A levels remains relatively good, despite the regressive student-loan reforms of 2022. But for though those without good level 3 qualifications, the offer is very poor, and has worsened in the last 13 years. Funding for adult education and training has halved since 2010. As the cost-of-living crisis has intensified, perceptions of the challenges for young people have also become entrenched. More prospective students and their families appear to be questioning the value of a three-year residential degree as an investment: not only has the security of financial return through higher salaries appeared to evaporate, but the sheer challenge of meeting day-to-day living costs looks daunting given that maintenance loans are inadequate to cover costs. Recent Public First polling showed that many people are now viewing apprenticeships and FE as more relevant to them than HE. But both sectors are in deep difficulty, only a fifth of employers offer apprenticeships and lobbying by universities for improved funding is not working. Against a background of persistently weak economic growth, high inflation and high government debt, public investment is tough to secure. 

Moreover, our current post-18 arrangements are simply not meeting the needs of the post-Brexit economy. Skills shortages are up, productivity is still flatlining, economic growth is weak and the UK government is being outpaced on investment by other countries. The changing economic and social challenges put ambition and structural reform at a premium: the transition to a net-zero economy, the accelerating pace of digital transformation and the exponentially increasing capabilities of AI on top of the need, after Brexit, for the UK to develop an alternative economic model to the financialised uneven development of the last two generations. These challenges require more people with secure basic skills, good technical skills and routes to higher-level skills, with more opportunities throughout people’s working lives. Not only do we invest far too little in technical and basic skills, and in adults outside HE to deliver that, but our policy and organisational structures make scaling what local successes we have all but impossible. The complexity of the system, the in-built competition and duplication and the poor level of employer investment in skills are persistent problems.

If change on the scale we need is going to happen, then we need a coherent approach to skills development and place-based innovation, which will require different behaviours and approaches at every level. Built into the Civic University Commission was a sense that universities need to deliver not only for their students but for their communities – to play their part in shaping the futures of those who do not and will not attend university in a conventional sense. It was part of a wider sense of how the UK needs to adapt its economic and governance model: Bob Kerslake also chaired the UK2070 Commission, undertaking long-term thinking on how the UK might thrive throughout the 21st century. As far as skills development is concerned, it’s clear what we need: better and clearer pathways for all learners, and not simply for those on the ‘royal route’ from eight good GCSEs through A levels to a three-year residential degree. We need an offer for all adults, irrespective of prior learning, valuing all levels of learning equally in terms of the impact it makes for the learner. We need a stronger case for investment through prioritisation of scarce resources, and much greater clarity for employers about how the system works and where they can get advice. And, in return, we need higher levels of investment in education and training, and a coherent approach to skills development across a wider range of government departments. Locally, a high-skill economy will not simply depend on colleges and private training providers but on a coherent skills infrastructure in which colleges, private providers, universities, employers and schools all play their part. Meanwhile, nationally it will see skills not simply as the province of the Department for Education, but at the centre of government thinking about the long-term demands of its industrial vision, net zero, health and so on.

If the vision is relatively easy to articulate, it requires a radical change in approach from government and from education institutions. It will need a tertiary regulator and funder, with early learning from Wales and Australia to inform policy thinking. England has a much larger skills system than either Wales or Australia, and our working assumption is therefore that effective tertiary funding will depend on a high degree of devolution and regionalisation. That will mean national regulation and a national foresight function, but also regional funding and planning. It will mean more distinct and clearer missions for universities and colleges, each playing to its strengths, but working together to join up their offer locally and regionally. The Scottish model, where universities and colleges have worked in effective partnership, especially through the skills elements of devolution deals, is a useful pathfinder. It will mean a coherent approach to funding post-18 education, addressing the needs of all learners, and valuing all learners equally. The Lifelong Loan Entitlement (LLE), for all its implementation and development challenges, represents a huge step forward. But it will need to be accompanied by a deliverable maintenance offer for learners and more focus on all levels of learning below the level 4 starting point of the LLE. Government will need to play its part with a long-term – and, crucially, stable – plan for skills investment across the whole of government, drawing on East Asian models, and encompassing the future of industrial strategy, digital transformation, health and net zero. And employers will need to step up their investment in skills.

The Civic University Commission invited universities to think much more strategically and consistently about their role in their communities. It also encouraged them to see that role not as an add on, but as part of their core responsibilities. As other essays in this collection have indicated, there’s nothing new about that: most universities were established with a vision for their place, in terms of shaping local economies and building the workforce needed by their cities and regions. But the world in which universities and colleges act is changing.  Developing prosperity and economic resilience for all depends both on building skills locally and maintaining a strong national perspective that ensures that supply chains, energy, national security and manufacturing are strong in an era of geopolitical instability. 

In her 2024 Mais lecture setting out her policy vision as shadow chancellor of the exchequer, Labour’s Rachel Reeves rightly highlighted the ways in which geopolitical dynamics, rapid technological change and the climate crisis were multiplying disruptions for all nations, and that the ability to respond depended increasingly on an active state. She talked about the importance of reshaping the economy through agglomeration and addressing the skills gap. But she did not unpack the relationship between a national skills agency and the skills infrastructure in the regions. That, above all, involves refocusing the skills infrastructure we have and unleashing its creativity through dynamic cooperation, to shape better opportunities for all. Creative local cooperation between universities and further education could be transformational in driving change.

The next 40 years require a renewal of the vision, not simply thinking about the needs of the minority – albeit now a large minority – who will progress to a conventional university education, but about the part they play in building a more cohesive and successful society. We know that there are exceptional examples locally of colleges and universities working closely together, but scaling local collaboration has so far proved elusive. The stakes now for us as a country are too great for the system not to be fundamentally overhauled. A first step would be for colleges and universities to work more closely together nationally to make the case for change, and to commit to delivering a better system and a significantly enhanced offer to learners and employers, more aligned to local inclusion and economic growth.

Professor Sir Chris Husbands and David Hughes CBE

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