FE and HE: skills, funding and sneering

This opinion piece by Alison Wolf, Professor of Public Sector Management at KCL takes a serious look at the distortions caused by different funding regimes for further and higher education. The incentives of these regimes mean that vocational training at FE level is a neglected option for most post-19 students, who tend to rush towards university degrees instead. The result, she claims, are serious long-term labour supply problems ahead.

I am inclined to quibble with certain tenets, though. For example, she insists that Universities are not equipped to offer vocational training for two reasons: first, that they cannot maintain industry-like conditions and equipment, and second that university staff are distracted by research instead of focusing on teaching. This is disingenuous, at least in many subject areas. Not only do universities have the financial clout and critical mass to invest in facilities, but there are huge incentives already in play for working closely with industry on training. Staffordshire’s own journalism and product or games design departments are excellent examples of this. Moreover, precisely those universities that might feel the need to expand into areas that are underfunded in FE are also precisely those universities that are not as research intensive, so the tension she describes is not decisive there. All of which means that this proposal from BIS may be barking up the wrong tree.

Another, much more general quibble is with the assumption — which we see over and over and which is still unquestioned — that the only benefit to a university degree is the financial one. Professor Wolf can thus argue that the personal economic benefits to individuals of taking a degree (the pay differential) are not the same as the benefits to the economy as a whole. Indeed, although that pay gap is persistent despite the many prophecies of it disappearing. More importantly, there are non-economic benefits to higher education.

One of those benefits, I dare suggest, is reflected in the declining circulation figures of the Telegraph. Their own opinion piece concerning Professor Wolf’s work, typically masquerading as news, is found here, and its tone explains the last word in the title of this blog post.

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