Further education has been badly hit by cuts over the past decade, with per pupil funding in sixth-form colleges dropping 12% in real terms and spending on adult education about 50% lower than in 2009-10 © Tim Prestige/Exeter College

Employers will have a greater say in designing college courses and qualifications under a government blueprint for a further education system that promises to boost flagging skills and productivity in the UK.

In a long-awaited Skills for Jobs white paper unveiled on Thursday, the Department for Education pledged that by 2030 employers would have a “central role” in designing almost all technical courses for people aged over 16, and announced £65m for new college business centres, which will serve as hubs where employers and colleges can collaborate.

The long-anticipated plan sets out the government’s grand ambitions to revive the country’s ailing and underfunded vocational education system. But its vision may be limited by economic constraints, with the one-year spending review offering limited scope for further funding and the mounting cost of coronavirus casting a shadow over future investment.

David Hughes, chief executive of the Association of Colleges, which represents almost 250 FE colleges, said the government had offered an “ambitious package of measures” which would bring a “significant shift” in life-long learning.

“These are concrete plans which can deliver the government’s levelling-up commitments,” he said. “Colleges have been calling for this, after years of being overlooked and underutilised, but government has to not only recognise the vital college role, it also needs to increase funding.”

Under the plans, which build on earlier promises of “radical” change, business groups and chambers of commerce will be invited to work with further education providers to create the college business centres. The £65m allocated for the project comes from the £2.5bn National Skills Fund, announced in March.

Other measures include changing the law in 2025 to help adult learners access loan finance, and funding for pilots of short courses targeted at specific skills. The DfE also said it would “overhaul” funding and accountability rules so it could intervene to ensure training meets employers’ needs.

Education secretary Gavin Williamson said the plan for post-16 education would focus on the skills needed “for the economy to grow”.

“These reforms are at the heart of our plans to build back better, ensuring all technical education and training is based on what employers want and need, whilst providing individuals with the training they need to get a well-paid and secure job,” he said.

Further education has been badly hit by cuts over the past decade, with per pupil funding in sixth-form colleges dropping 12 per cent in real terms and spending on adult education now about 50 per cent lower than it was in 2009-10.

At the same time, businesses have struggled to find workers with the right level of skills, which economists say has resulted in stagnating productivity growth.

Peter Cheese, chief executive of the Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development, said giving employers more say was a “significant step forwards” in closing skills gaps.

“This is a key part of the solution to tackling the UK’s skills development and productivity deficit and equipping people for changes to the world of work driven by increased use of AI and automation,” he said.

Kirsty Donnelly, chief executive of City & Guilds, a group that provides vocational qualifications, said the announcement felt “like the same old rhetoric”. She said more was needed to help adults who had been shut out of further education, for example because they lack academic qualifications, and neglected the need for investment in digital rather than bricks-and-mortar resources.

Business groups added that employers, and particularly small businesses, needed more support to take on trainees and assess what skills they required.

“Central to this is making sure that small businesses are afforded the financial support and guidance necessary to help with training the workforce as well as those who are unemployed,” said Mike Cherry, national chair of the Federation of Small Businesses.

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