8 January, 2017

England makes a strategic retreat from VET markets

By Don Zoellner

At this year’s Group Training Australia conference, one of the speakers proposed that Australian VET policy tended to mimic the United Kingdom with a five year time lag. While I have argued that each country has historical paths that constrain the options available to political decision-makers[1], it is nevertheless instructive to observe the government policy announcement on Technical Education in July 2016 that was overshadowed by the Brexit campaigns in the United Kingdom.

The Post-16 Skills Plan[2] is the British Government’s response to the Sainsbury Review of Technical Education[3] which recommended a comprehensive and integrated overhaul of educational pathways for students who reach 16 years of age. In a historically rather unusual response, Minister Boles announced that his conservative government would avoid the continued tinkering with training policy that had characterised the past half-century and accept all of the recommendations subject to the overall budgetary constraints facing the nation.

The traditional academic pathway to university remains, of course, and it is anticipated that about 60 per cent of students will continue in this option. However, there will be two other offerings leading to a mere handful of technical qualifications; employment-based and college-based. The first is the traditional apprenticeship that must have at least 12 months employment on-the-job training and is primarily funded by an employer levy on large companies with a payroll of over three million pounds. The second means of gaining the same industry-specified nationally consistent qualification is through colleges that must have a substantial and fully-funded work placement. There will be ‘bridging’ courses that will allow students to move between the three streams.

In addition, thousands of current qualifications that have been provided by a wide-range of organisations operating in a marketplace will be reduced to a common framework of 15 ‘routes’ across all technical education that will be managed by a single national body. There will only be one approved technical level qualification for each of these occupational clusters. These new qualifications will be centrally sanctioned by industry in a clear recognition that the English market in qualifications has produced ‘a race to the bottom’ with a proliferation of easy and cheap qualifications at the expense of the more highly skilled technical qualifications required for emerging industries. Occupations that have little or no technical knowledge and skills that can be learned on the job will fall outside the scope of the new national technical education system and, consequently, not receive public funding.

Some elements of market-driven behaviour will remain in place such as using a competitive tendering process to grant exclusive technical level qualification development licences. Both public and private providers will continue to compete for the apprenticeship levy funds through the use of vouchers issued by industry-controlled bodies (rather than government) that will finance the off-the-job training component[4], however, other market-driven initiatives are being dismantled.

Minister Boles described that “the current network of colleges and other training providers is financially unsustainable” and has accepted the review panel’s recommendation to restrict public funding for education and training to institutions that reinvest any surplus into the country’s education infrastructure rather than taking a profit. In other words, there will be no further allocation of public training funds to for-profit private providers. In addition, there will be a series of ‘national colleges’ established to lead the provision of skills for emerging and economically important industries. These new well-resourced public colleges will specialise in the higher level qualifications and have strong links into the nuclear, digital skills, high-speed rail, onshore oil and gas as well as the creative and cultural industries.

Finally, the Sainsbury Review made a number of quite specific and detailed observations of ‘high performing technical education systems’ in other nations. It might be of some interest to local policy commentators that Australia did not get a mention even though one of the review panel members was in the country during the preparation of their report. While it will be interesting to see if Australia does imitate these English policy changes in the next half decade, it seems likely that the traditional barriers and the politically bi-partisan acceptance of competition policy will limit the possibility of bold change and the capacity to recognise, let alone accept, the limitations of market-driven behaviours in the vocational education and training environment.

Dr Don Zoellner is a Research Associate at Charles Darwin University, Alice Springs


[1] Zoellner, D. (2016). Fixing problematic apprentice systems: there is never a clean slate. The Australian Vocational Education and Training Research Association. North Sydney.

[2] Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and Department for Education (2016). Post-16 skills plan. London, British Government. https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/536043/Post-16_Skills_Plan.pdf

[3] The Independent Panel on Technical Education (2016). Report of the Independent Panel on Technical Education (the Sainsbury Review). London, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/536046/Report_of_the_Independent_Panel_on_Technical_Education.pdf

[4] Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, (2015). Apprenticeships levy: employer owned apprenticeships training. London, United Kingdom Government. https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/455101/bis-15-477-apprenticeships-levy-consultation.pdf

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