UK Government proposed changes to post-18 education will be hard felt in Wales

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ColegauCymru Chief Executive Iestyn Davies reflects on the UK Government response to the Augar Review and what it means for post-compulsory education and training in Wales.

It could be said that UK Government plans for post-18 education in England don’t augur well. Critics cite the negative impact it will have on social mobility in particular. Conversely, the proposals outlined by Westminster could be considered as a reassuring step forward, a levelling up opportunity and a positive example of how governments can intervene and correct market failure.

Whatever your perspective and however you read the signs of change, the impact of the proposals will be felt in Wales. All this at a time when the proposed establishment of single post-16 regulatory and funding body - the Commission for Tertiary Education and Research - has already ruffled more than a few feathers.

A response from Welsh Government is now needed. Alongside the proposed introduction of a single regulatory and funding body, the current administration, must restate its vision not only for the Commission but for the provision of education once compulsory schooling has ended.

The response must set out how the various parts of post-16 provision will be supported by both government and the Commission. Creating “a joined up PCET system in Wales that is easy for learners to navigate, is valued by the public, creates a highly skilled society and tackles inequalities” is a laudable aim. This description of the “what” was, is and will doubtless always be welcome in Wales. What is needed now is clarity on the how and the who.

The statement must clarify how Welsh Government will, via the Commission, fund provision particularly in the messy middle, when student fees in Wales will inevitably track the decisions made in England. Welsh Ministers must outline how they will allocate resources alongside utilising student debt to fund provision.

A clear direction must be set on how the Commission’s regulatory model, still yet to be devised or consulted upon in detail, will ensure that the pathways available in Wales are clear and unhindered by nugatory competition. Clarity is needed on what will fall to the Commission itself and what will remain the prerogative of Ministers whilst maintaining the principle of the Commission’s independence.

Serious and urgent consideration must be given to the numerous clauses within the Bill that are likely to limit or constrain the capacity for collaboration. This is particularly the case when provision of higher-level qualifications is dependent on effective, sustainable and resilient partnerships and where funding allocations are, in essence, an acceptance of market failure.

Clarity on how the government and the Commission will act will determine the who. Not only “who delivers?” but also “who benefits?”.

Providers will need to ensure a long-term plan for their institutions acting much more as grounded public service institutions and less like corporate players making deals in a global market. This is within the gift of leaders and governors and should not need to rely on regulation. It is sadly clearly necessary in many instances. The impact of the changes in England should make this evermore obvious but probably no more apparent to some.

When it comes to asking who benefits from the reform of post-16 education in Wales, it’s probably a safe bet to say that eligibility for student finance based on GCSE grades is unlikely to follow. More important than the criteria for student loan acceptance is the quality of outcomes at post-16 and the relevance of the learning experience offered by the new Curriculum for Wales. The apparent desire to see GCSEs as terminal qualifications offered to 16 year olds and not as one step of many in a lifelong learning journey is more troubling.

The need to match vision with action is something that’s been covered elsewhere. If we want our citizens to be empowered to follow new lifelong learning pathways, we have to build them, not just imagine them. A minister charged with the responsibility in both pre and post-compulsory education should be minded to see the urgent need to support innovation and not rely on the reworking of outdated models of teaching, delivery and assessment. 
Heavily trailed in the general as well as FE press, many of the response to the Augar report have not come as a surprise. Those of us currently working in FE in Wales would be complacent in thinking that the plans are simply a matter for a different sector in a different country and will not impact on us and our learners. This will be far from the case.  
 
Further Information

UK Government Press Release 
Fairer higher education system for students and taxpayers
24 February 2022

UK Government Independent Report 
Post-18 review of education and funding: independent panel report 
May 2019

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