Time to match vision with action

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ColegauCymru Chief Executive Iestyn Davies outlines why Welsh Government needs to press ahead with a radical reform and commit to delivering on the promises within its vision for post compulsory education.

In the coming weeks many people will be poring over the Welsh Government bill to create a Commission for Tertiary Education and Research (CTER). The bill, quite rightly delayed due to the impact of COVID19, promises to realise a vision for what has become known as PCET (post compulsory education and training), based on the framework outlined by Professor Ellen Hazelkorn in March 2016. With Westminster already considering the implications of the Skills and Post-16 Education Bill and the pressing challenges of Brexit and COVID recovery certainly not going away, time is of the essence.  

Skills, Further and Higher education policy in Wales doesn’t exist in a vacuum. The changes contained within the UK Government bill will impact Wales. Some of the UK bill’s proposals could be achieved by acknowledging that colleges in England already engage effectively with employers. Instead, a supposedly neo-liberal government with the usual conservative tendencies to direct and mandate, has sought to put the dynamic relationship between skills provision, economics and the civic mission of further education institutions (FEIs) on a statutory footing, largely with further education (FE) becoming the servant in a reductive view of the relationship between people and work.  

Other proposed changes in the field of qualifications will alter what we can deliver here in Wales. Again, the UK Government talks the language of deregulation, and employer responsiveness but it cannot envisage achieving this without its conservative tendencies overshadowing its neo-liberal reforms. The result will be the loss of qualifications provided by well-respected organisations as they seek to respond to an unstable market.  

All this needs to be considered against the backdrop of the growing cost of delivering post-18 higher education which if we’re brutally honest is the real driver of any proposed reform either side of our border. If you’re in any doubt about this last point, just note how the UK Government response to the Augar Review is framed by its reference to the next Comprehensive Spending Review1. 

Wales will do well to avoid this straight jacketing of learning into the over simplistic view that providers exist in a solely transactional relationship with business. As Professor John Buchanan and the team which worked on the report Enabling Renewal: Further Education and Building Better Citizenship, Occupations and Business Communities in Wales2 set out, the relationship between skills and work isn’t a simple single line equation of x skills provides y jobs.  

Following the same approach on qualifications in Wales will mean the dumbing down of technical learning into chunks of only the most necessary legislation-driven credentials. All at a time when the available evidence highlights the need for smarter solutions, an engaged workforce and the ability to develop capabilities and not just narrow job-specific competencies. It will also mean the end of Welsh Language teaching, learning and assessment. 

Following England will certainly mean the loss of any genuine civic mission, aspiration and the creativity required to meet the current and imminent demands of a changing world. It will pit institutions against each other across sector and inhibit rather than promote social mobility. 

Wales, and in particular the collaborative space between universities, colleges and schools must avoid the trap of a reductive - but potentially financially seductive - view of education and skills. It cannot however shrink back from examining both the cost and the value of its post-16 education system.   

Three real challenges must be addressed by the CTER bill.  

1. The need to include scope for urgent reform of higher technical accreditation. 

First, the bill must include the scope for urgent reform of higher technical accreditation. Purposeful learning provision and accreditation at sub-degree level is internationally recognised as key to future prosperity. It is significantly lacking in the UK as a whole and, at least from the view of the OECD, contributes to both social as well as economic good.3 The success of the CTER bill will not be judged by an uneasy maintenance of the status quo but how it supports HEIs in particular to show leadership and facilitate an FE-led solution in this area. In doing this, the role of HE in the world of open-market terminal degree-level provision will also be clearer and more capable of being supported. So too will its capacity to deliver and then in partnership exploit primary research. 

2. The need to facilitate a single approach to 16-19 provision 

Secondly, the bill must facilitate a single approach to 16-19 provision, its funding and its quality assurance. This does not mean a one-size fits all single-provider model. It does however mean a system that has at its core safeguards for learner progression. What we term tertiary, and much of the focus of the bills in both Westminster and Cardiff Bay, is actually more correctly termed upper-secondary. The challenge again as outlined by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) isn’t the protection of current provision but rather the creation of effective pathways and progression. This can only be achieved through a return to better curriculum planning from 14-19, the effective and holistic scrutiny of outcomes and above all trust between institutions charged with putting learner needs first. If the awaited bill remains silent on this area of our tertiary provision, all else will fail, not least the challenge to deliver on lifelong learning. 

3. The issue of Lifelong Learning 

Thirdly the issue of Lifelong Learning has to be addressed. Since it first took shape in 2001, the concept of Wales as a Learning Country4 has been our goal. Whilst the National Mission to improve education looks to many like a charter to rewrite the compulsory education curriculum, the growing inequalities for those who have left formal education have persisted5. The response is a socio-economic duty on local authorities, FE colleges and universities. It is responsibility that Welsh Government must recognise in its funding and support for those least likely to be able to participate in debt-based learning. Loan funding has its place but in many instances it will prove a barrier not a bridge to lifelong learning. 

The bill is something we’ve waited on for close to seven years. What was in essence a review of HEFCW and the oversight of mainly Higher Education Institutions has become potentially something much more important and even more contentious. Whisper it quietly, this might be something we can be thankful to the UK Government for. Now it’s time for Welsh Government to set out how it plans to respond to what are worldwide challenges.  

It’s now time to match vision with action! 

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