The government wants to equip young people with the skills to participate actively in the economy
The government wants to equip young people with the skills to participate actively in the economy © MBI/Alamy

The government has abandoned a target for 50 per cent of students in England to go to university and pledged to invest more in vocational further education as it seeks to pivot to a broader mix of post-GCSE study.

Gavin Williamson, education secretary, pledged on Thursday to build a “world-class, German-style further education system” that equips young people aged over 16 with the skills to participate actively in the economy.

“For decades, we have failed to give further education the investment it deserves,” Mr Williamson said in a speech hosted by the Social Market Foundation, a think-tank.

“Our universities have an important role to play in our economy, society and culture, but there are limits to what we can achieve by sending ever more people into higher education, which is not always what the individual and nation needs.”

The speech, which did not announce any new funding, comes ahead of a white paper on further education due this autumn. It is a clear statement of a new focus on vocational and technical skills, a year after official figures indicated the Blair government’s 1999 target to see half of young people enter higher education was reached.

Last week, Michelle Donelan, universities minister, claimed “too many” young people were taking university courses that did not improve their employment prospects, while Wednesday’s summer statement promised to focus on apprenticeships and training to get people back into jobs.

Industry and education leaders said it was right to challenge the perception that universities were a “gold standard”, and welcomed news of greater funding for further education after a decade of neglect.

“Our current system simply does not support the half of adults who don’t get the chance to study at higher levels,” said David Hughes, chief executive of the Association of Colleges, which represents the sector.

“I welcome the education secretary’s commitment to end the snobbery that places university study as somehow more worthy and important than apprenticeships, technical training or people taking their first steps into better literacy or numeracy.”

But experts said there was a long way to go to rebuild the sector after a decade of cuts by Conservative-led governments. Over the past 10 years funding for 16 to 18-year-old students has fallen by 12 per cent in real terms, and adult education funding by two-thirds, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, a think-tank.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, a union, was cautious over whether the education secretary’s “warm words” would be “backed up with adequate funding”.

“The truth is that colleges have been woefully underfunded by the government over the past decade,” he said. “The situation is so serious that the government itself introduced an insolvency system because of the risk of them going bust.”

The CBI, which represents 190,000 businesses, said colleges were “the engines of levelling up” but warned that the government should not seek to pit further education against universities.

“These reforms must go hand-in-hand with support for our world-leading and highly respected universities that are struggling so acutely in the face of coronavirus,” said Josh Hardie, CBI deputy director-general.

“The FE white paper is a golden opportunity to join up higher and technical education, drive inclusion and prosperity — delivering the high-skilled, high-paid jobs that communities need now and in the future.”

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