There are many positives to welcome with the publication of the White paper, Skills for Jobs. Further education, particularly FE colleges, have never been so highly placed in the government’s core economic mission to ‘build back better’ from a once- in-a-century global pandemic. The sector’s welcome uplift in attention follows a decade of austerity cuts to FE and the loss of over 1 million adult learners.

More money for FE colleges by giving less to universities

College leaders are to be rewarded with a new £65 million investment in college-led ‘business centres’, linked to the strategic skills priorities of local chambers of commerce. The government, in England, will continue to spend nearly one-in-ten pounds of taxpayers’ money via the Education Skills Funding Agency (ESFA). Leviathan is certainly alive and well, even if the context in which the quango operates is more uncertain than ever, due in part, to the lack of a three year funding settlement.

After half a century of major expansion, our governing class appears to have finally fallen out of love with wanting to send more young people to university. Instead, policymakers are signalling a future where vocational and technical courses – particularly at sub-degree level – will take up far more of the nation’s skills attainment profile. Higher Technical Qualifications at Levels 4 and 5 will get a big boost, helping to close some of the skills gap with some of our major international competitors.

New terminology is entering the FE lexicon too, with the idea of “boot camps”, first made popular in the United States, for giving people short-sharp training opportunities with direct entry into well-paid employment. Computer coding boot camps, for example, helped spurn a whole new generation of entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley.

Stymied by the small print of the Lifetime Skills Guarantee

The White paper translates in policy and financial terms into the first commitment, since the disbandment of the old Level 3 entitlement in 2013, of enabling adults to get qualified to at least Level 3, regardless of age or circumstance. But the new ‘entitlement’ – branded as the Lifetime Skills Guarantee – is only available to individuals who have never held a first Level 3 qualification before. Participants in England, who are eligible, have to select from a restrictive list of courses numbering less than 400. These eligible Level 3 courses have been decided by ministers and Whitehall officials, in the first instance; instead of by the needs and challenges of the real economy. For example, people won’t be able to train for new self-employed careers in the creative industries or animal care.

As with so many FE policy initiatives, an already complex picture, from a learner’s point of view, will not look any simpler in future. Of course, FE providers will welcome some additional investment. But many citizens will still feel short-changed. Let’s take the profile of one potential learner affected by the pandemic.

Emma’s story

Emma is in her late-40s. She left school with a clutch of GCSEs and A-Levels and went straight into work for the aviation industry as cabin crew. Because of the economic devastation wreaked by Covid-19, Emma has recently been made redundant. Because her partner has retained his modestly well-paid job, Emma can’t benefit from any of the Kick Start schemes designed to get people quickly back into work, because the household is ineligible for Universal Credit.

Neither can Emma re-train in Level 3 childcare, selected from the Lifetime Skills Guarantee course list, because of two A-Levels passed donkey’s year ago while at school sixth-form. She’d thought about doing a digital boot camp but there isn’t one on offer in her mayoral combined authority area. There’s no other state-backed education option for Emma, except to enrol on a full-time university course and take out a fees-based loan. With her household already indebted, including three school age children to support, the last thing Emma wants to do is add to the family’s debt burden by committing to three years of full-time education.

The October revolution that never was

Emma’s story is one of the reasons the White paper fails to make the most of the planned National Skills Fund that the Treasury has earmarked to support a more inclusive and productive economy. It really could have been the “revolution” ministers had once touted. Instead, the White paper lacks both the vision and the financial means to create a bold and landmark intervention in lifelong learning that would see England become the first country in the world to adopt a genuinely universalist skills and lifelong learning model.

For example, what if the National Skills Fund was in fact turned into a universal lifelong learning fund and personal account system for every working age person? Just as the existing National Insurance Fund pays for today’s state pensioners, imagine a National Skills Fund collecting payroll contributions from ages 18 to 55, that can be used by individuals to retrain or learn something new throughout life or their changing careers. Tax incentives via PAYE or pension funds transfers at 55 could be made available that allow people to top-up a personal account that can be used on any form of quality skills training or accredited learning. Employers could contribute tax free to these funds, joining up the £20 billion state investment in post-18 tertiary education with the £45 billion the private sector already spends each year on company training. With a statutory ‘right to train’ for employees, of 5 days off per annum, you start to see how a real skills revolution could have been set off.

Crucially, these funds would be made available at a juncture in an individual’s life circumstance when they need it most, as in the case of Emma’s redundancy. For those not in work, or the self-employed, lifelong learning grants of up to £9,000 would be made available instead (with full access to DWP benefits for up to a year while the learning takes place). But what such a universal model of learning entitlements and financial support would really add up to is the 21st century progressive idea that individuals – citizens, not institutions, are the people best placed to decide how they should benefit. For that reason, perhaps more than any other, this White paper feels like such a personal disappointment for me.

Why can’t we adopt the universalism of the NHS?

When we fall ill, it is the specific medical condition that we find ourselves in that dictates the kind of treatment that we will receive. The National Health Service, when it was launched in 1948, gave citizens health care from cradle-to-grave. For all the modern day pressures, the NHS has shown itself during the roll-out of the Covid-19 vaccination programme how superior a simple, free-at-the-point-of-use healthcare system can be, in meeting the country’s big public health goals and clinical needs. The NHS is not perfect, of course, but it is one of the most civilising institutions on earth.

Ultimately, as a nation, we all club together to support it. It is thanks to such universal principles and simplicity, smart central planning and strong partnerships with the private sector, that Britain is now a world leader in Covid-19 vaccinations on a per capita basis. We have already performed more inoculations than all the EU countries put together. In a post-Brexit reality, it is an achievement to be proud.

In education we need something just as bold and inspiring. The FE White Paper of 2021 will be seen as a delight to those that inhabit the technocratic and bureaucratic world of ‘systems-level leadership’. But it will disappoint those who believe that to recover from the pandemic, during the fourth industrial revolution (which never really went away), the country requires a lifelong education service built around similar founding principles to those of the NHS. A universal system that we all contribute to via general taxation, which is always available to teach us something new. Now that sounds like a revolutionary White paper really worth celebrating and waiting for!

Tom Bewick is the chief executive of the Federation of Awarding Bodies