As a former NUS president, I know the value of post-16 education. I know what role the education sector plays in not only increasing the life chances of individuals and communities but for our society and economy as a whole.
That is why Ed Miliband was right to talk yesterday about vocational and academic qualifications and the binary divide between further and higher education which if maintained, threatens to hold our country back. His words are an encouraging sign that in the face of the Coalition’s slash and burn approach, Labour is taking the lead in developing the policies to build a lifelong learning society and establish it as the bedrock of economic recovery.
Higher education receives a lot of attention because those who make policy and report on it have prior experience of university and their kids are likely to do so too. Far fewer have studied at a further education college or institution of adult education.
Indeed, it is quite telling that before scrapping EMA on the flimsiest of evidence, Michael Gove had not set foot in a further education college during his time as Secretary of State. So blinkered had he been to the potential of further education to stimulate the economy, he is missed one of the silent engines of growth and personal development which transforms lives every day, up and down this country.
Figures from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills’ own research show that those with further education qualifications generate around £75 billion for the economy. Meanwhile, the return on Government investment for apprenticeships works out at around £40 for each £1 spent, when taken as an individual’s first qualification at that level.
But this Government has slashed further education funding by 25% over the spending review period. They have axed EMA and put in place a postcode lottery of financial support that provides nowhere near the support young people need in order to access post-16 education. These are decisions which fly in the face of sense and threaten to do lasting damage.
They are on the cusp of introducing a higher education-style FE loans system for over 300,000 adult learners and which the sector – lecturers, students and colleges themselves – have openly opposed. It will hit those who have missed out on basic qualifications the first time round and those taking to access to university courses. In the south west, where I was born and raised, nearly 20,000 adult further education students face the prospect of taking out adult loans. If they want to move on to higher education, they face the prospect of taking out another loan to pay fees. The pathways to learning are being churned up by a dangerous haphazard ignorance of not only the transformational power of education but real people’s lives, families and communities.
It is indeed harder to climb the ladder when the rungs are further apart. But the ladder is not only being taken apart by cuts, it is being pulled up by those who are not committed to delivering educational opportunity for all.
Nick Clegg can wax lyrical all he wants about the importance of social mobility. But these are only words, and they are all he has for us. The ample evidence provided by the Government’s actions and their effects tell a different story – the austerity programme and the degradation of education overseen by the Coalition will do lasting damage people to those in and out of work, those in and out of education, those on the margin who have more potential than opportunity.
Labour is right to continue to talk about further and vocational education and its role in creating a growing, skills based economy that works for the many, not the few. Let’s now really look at jobs and skills for the future, let’s look to low carbon technology and green growth to skill a generation.
Further and vocational education offer so many opportunities for people of all ages and in all stage of life. Ed Miliband is right to make them a part of a wider strategy for social mobility and growth. As a Party for the many, not the few, we can be bold, we can offer hope and opportunity and we can build a sustainable, skills based economy for the future.