With the next general election less than 18 months away, this year’s party conferences were an important moment for the parties to set out their policy proposals, including on further and higher education.
We’ve rounded up the highlights from both conferences on the announcements and main discussion areas.
At Conservative Conference in Manchester there was a strong focus on Skills and Apprenticeships. The Minister for Skills, Robert Halfon MP, criticised a trend within the UK education system to focus on university, and instead advocated for more vocational routes and “skills, skills, skills.” He acknowledged that for this policy to be successful, a broader cultural and attitude shift would have to take place to re-frame how we as a nation see skills at non-university routes.
The Secretary of State for Education, Gillian Keegan MP, also advocated for greater degree apprenticeships, combining the educational and technical avenues to overcome skills shortages. As part of this, she promoted ongoing collaboration between educators and employers, crediting the government’s previous work on apprenticeships, skills bootcamps, and the Lifelong Learning Entitlement. Elsewhere, Keegan emphasised the need for more Institutes of Technology and science degrees, to ensure skills provision is keeping up with the changing demands of the economy.
Meanwhile, the PM announced plans for the “Advanced British Standard” (ABS), a new Baccalaureate-style qualification that would reform the education system to put A Levels and T Levels on equal footing in an ‘aligned framework’ – these plans will take over a decade to implement in full, with students starting primary school this year expected to be the first cohort taking the exams.
During the conference, there was some criticism from Siobhan Baillie MP (Member of the Work & Pensions Committee and Member of the Future of Employability APPG) around the Apprenticeship Levy, having recognised the burden the Levy places on some employers/providers, but this was minimal. Ms Baillie joins a growing list of industry figures and other MPs calling for reform of the levy and changes could be announced in advance of the next general election.
On universities, the Education Secretary raised concerns that recent strike action had impacted quality levels and announced the government would consult on introducing “minimum service levels in universities.” Meanwhile the Prime Minister also restated his government’s pledge to stop universities offering “low value, rip-off degrees.” These challenges to the higher education sector, alongside ongoing comments from the government around reducing the number of international students and their dependents in the UK, reiterate the Conservative Party’s position that, in the words of the Education Secretary, “university is not the only option” as the government seek to realise the lifelong learning revolution they have promised to deliver. Interestingly, there was little mention on the main stage of the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Act passed earlier this year, although several think tank panels pointed to the legislation as evidence of the government’s action on protecting freedom of speech.
At Labour Conference in Liverpool, Shadow Secretary of State for Education Bridget Phillipson criticised the Government’s work around FE. She stated that qualification reform had been “botched”, apprenticeship up take is down and that the levy does not work.
Ms Phillipson reiterated that Labour would create a new national Skills England body and reform the Apprenticeship Levy into a Growth and Skills Levy. At the Conference Labour also announced plans to deliver new specialist ‘Technical Excellence Colleges’ which will seek to enhance the role of local business in delivering skills and ensure that communities have skills that fit the needs of local economies. The plans are set to give universities a seat around the table in the development of local skills improvement plans (LSIPs) and will make the plans “democratically accountable” to local communities. Under the plans, bids will be assessed by Skills England to make sure local skills plans meet national strategic priorities. They will depend on additional investment from local businesses and improved links to local universities.
On universities, Phillipson stated that under the current system young people are being locked out of pursuing their degree of choice, highlighting the introduction of tuition fees for nursing degrees as a failure by the Government. For all students, she stated the Party would look to change the way students pay for universities – but detail on the policy remains to be seen.
Elsewhere, during a Policy Exchange event, Lord Blunkett, former Secretary of State for Education and Employment, explained that more data was needed to understand the apprentice ‘drop-out’ rates alongside a reformation of the existing Levy. Whilst Labour adopted several policies from the skills report led by Lord Blunkett earlier this year, the party could announce further plans for skill and education reform ahead of the next election.
At the Liberal Democrat Conference, the focus was on practical changes to Higher and Further Education, seemingly targeted at directly enticing voters.
The party pledged to reinstate maintenance grants for disadvantaged students immediately to make sure that living costs are not a barrier to studying at university. Meanwhile in response to the government’s strategy on lifelong learning, the Liberal Democrats announced they would look to create new Skills Wallets, giving all adults £10,000 to spend on education and training throughout their lives.
With the impact of Brexit still seen as a key issue for Liberal Democrat voters, the party announced plans to ‘expand opportunities for young people to study, teach and volunteer abroad’ by returning to the EU’s Erasmus Plus programme as an associated country.