UNISON voices concern at post-18 education proposals

The union sees a missed opportunity in both further and higher education to create a system placing students and staff at their heart

UNION has expressed concern at the government’s newly published proposals in the Interim Conclusion of the Review of Post-18 Education and Funding today, and called instead for “a comprehensive set of proposals that place the interests of students and staff at their heart”.

The proposals follow the review of post-18 education, which was carried out by Philip Augar in a report commissioned by then prime minister Theresa May in 2018.

The report focuses on creating greater parity between academic and skills-based education and aligning technical education and training with employers’ needs. The government is introducing a lifetime skills guarantee, underpinned by a lifelong loan entitlement, from 2025.

However, although UNISON welcomes an emphasis on lifelong learning and parity between the sectors, the union believes that the report shows the current government is taking a piecemeal approach to reforming post-18 education.

With full conclusions to be published alongside the next comprehensive spending review, the report doesn’t address many of the problems facing post-18 education and doesn’t provide longer term clarity for colleges and universities. The union says this will not help institutions plan for the future.

Most significantly, though, it says that the proposals don’t reverse the years of underinvestment in post-18 education that is so desperately needed.

Commenting on the implications of the report for further education, national officer Leigh Powell stated: “We were hoping for a wholescale change to further education, and while the report gives a much-needed focus to the sector, it does not focus on the changes that we really need to see.

“We need to see colleges at the heart of their communities. While there is a much-needed focus on adult education and there’s some money for new buildings – vital in many areas – it just doesn’t feel like it’s gone far enough.”

And Ms Powell concluded: “The further education sector has struggled since it was incorporated back in the early 1990s. A truly ground-breaking further education white paper would not have continued with this broken model, but would have put colleges back where they belong – in the public sector, where all public service providers should be.”

In terms of higher education, UNISON also has a number of concerns.

The introduction of minimum entry requirements could undo the work that universities are undertaking on widening participation – enabling people from disadvantaged background to access higher education.

The realignment of both the teaching grant and the teaching capital fund in higher education could see many universities losing vital funds, with courses being cut.

UNISON officer Ruth Levin noted: “This was a chance to truly reform the post-18 education system, creating an integrated system for the benefit of students, society, employers and the economy.

“But instead of investing and providing a free system, these plans tinker around the edges of a system that is broken.”

“There is a danger that they will have a negative impact on universities and reduce funding and choice in a system that is already under huge pressure and struggling to cope.

“Both further and higher education need sustainable, long-term funding that provides students with the chance to pursue their education, a system in which the value of both skills-based and academic education is held high,” continued Ms Levin.

“A comprehensive set of proposals that place the interests of students and staff at their heart is what we want to see.”