Lord Willetts is President of the Resolution Foundation. He is a former Minister for Universities and Science. His book A University Education is published by OUP.
We have now had a slew of exam results, together with new data for apprenticeships. That is an opportunity to take stock of where we are on education and training. Here are two big challenges.
Much of the debate after the results for GCSEs last week has been about differential rates of post-Covid educational recovery. There is a real danger of a generation of young people scarred by missing out on a key stage of their education. Although Sir Kevan Collins was unhappy that the £15 billion he proposed has not been spent helping them, nevertheless total spend of over £4 billion is not a bad sum. The real constraints are not always finance but, for example, the supply of people qualified to deliver extra one-to-one tuition under the National Tutoring Programme.
More can be done to use on-line education to reach those who have lost out the most. The Government distributed over a million laptops, overcoming the concern that disadvantaged students couldn’t access on-line learning. But whereas Covid drove a bold vaccine roll-out programme, we failed to match that with a similarly ambitious on-line learning roll-out. Moreover, some education ministers in the past have been keener to denounce on-line learning rather than embracing it because of its potential to transform pedagogy.
It also provides much more data about personal learning. Imagine being able to analyse down to the last click the way an on-line student learns – the speed with which they answer specific questions; the points which cause greatest confusions and mistakes. Education should be up there alongside healthcare as one of the public services most ripe for innovation and enhancement as the digital evolution transforms our ability to gather and use detailed data.
Vocational routes and technical training remain a big challenge too. We have just had the second batch of T level results – for about 3,500 students. But 5,200 students started them two years ago, suggesting a dropout rate of about a third which is poor compared with the five per cent rate for A levels and about 10 per cent for BTECs.
These figures come after a critical Ofsted report which suggests one reason for the high dropout rate may be because T levels have quite an academic curriculum with a lot of theory. They began as an attempt by David Sainsbury to tackle a very specific problem – the shortage of technicians. The Government is now trying to make them the main vocational alternative to A levels. It is not clear that they can take on such a big role. That is one of the reasons why it is very high-risk to be phasing out BTECs, a very well-recognised qualification developed under Margaret Thatcher as part of a previous attempt at reform of vocational qualifications.
This is just part of the wider English problem of better vocational education. We are often told we should do what they do in Germany. But their apprenticeships are part of a very different and much larger manufacturing sector, with many more licences to practice requiring apprenticeships, and compulsory membership of chambers of commerce which, in turn, have a role in setting apprenticeship standards, and trade unions sitting on company supervisory boards. Asking for the German apprenticeship model is asking for the UK to be a different kind of economy.
There is a tendency to see vocational education as an alternative to higher education, but many university courses are vocational. The English view of what a proper university education is shaped by the dominance of the Oxbridge model, so we fail to recognise or value vocational training in universities. The degree apprenticeship is one way to over-come these old-fashioned ways of thinking. There are however other ways – for example, university courses including a sandwich year in industry.
One of the advantages of degree apprenticeships is supposed to be that the graduate leaves with no debt. This argument feeds the view that graduate debt is some scary thing which has to be avoided.
If a graduate left university with a bank overdraft or credit card debt of £50,000 that would indeed be scary. But this is an income linked repayment scheme with a rate of nine per cent above earnings of £25,000. To be paying back £100 a month you need to be earning about £38,000 a year. That should not be scary. It would be very odd for ministers to criticise this model when they are trying to promote the lifelong loan entitlement which also uses the graduate repayment scheme.
Degree apprenticeships are funded by employers out of the apprenticeship levy. This year there are about 40,000 degree apprenticeship starts, but 6,400 for under 19s. Employers tend to go for older employees, since it is a big deal for them to spend a lot of money from their apprenticeship levy on such a course: it is safter after they’ve employed someone for a time already.
Moreover, as the levy is close to fully spent this also means there is a constraint on the growth of degree apprenticeships. There is, however, one funding model which would enable the sustained growth of degree apprenticeships: to expect participants to pay back a loan covering some of their costs. That is another reason for winning robustly the argument for the graduate repayment system.
More on-line learning and more use of income-contingent loans are two ways we can boost access of good quality education and training.