Issue 122 | November 2021

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On 16 November, Amanda Spielman, the Ofsted Chief Inspector for England, delivered a speech at the AoC Annual Conference (see here for a copy). The topics covered in Ms Spielman’s speech are outlined below:

  • Resumption of full on-site inspections: Inspections ‘…will need to be handled carefully and appropriately’. Inspectors will ‘…need to understand the difficulties colleges had faced, and are still facing, and take these into account during inspections’. However, ‘…there will be no watering down of the rigour with which inspections will be carried out, nor in how judgements on the quality and effectiveness of provision are made’, because ‘…this would be letting students down’.
  • Political agenda: FE and skills ‘…remains high on the government’s political agenda’.
  • All colleges to receive a full inspection by 2025: The government has asked Ofsted to inspect all schools and FE providers by the summer of 2025 to ‘…provide the government with a quicker assessment of how well education in England is recovering from the pandemic’. Ofsted has been allocated £24 million of additional funding to help deliver this accelerated programme of inspections (see press release). Ofsted is recruiting between 18 and 25 additional FE inspectors to help build capacity needed for this.
  • Colleges rated ‘outstanding’ to receive full inspections: In the past, colleges rated ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ would have received a short inspection (or been exempt from inspection altogether). However, from this September and over the period to summer 2025, all colleges will receive a full inspection, irrespective of their prior inspection grade. Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme earlier this month, Ms Spielman said that following the programme of full inspections, she expected that the number of schools graded as outstanding would be half the number at present, down from around 20%, to 10%. The situation in FE is more complex, given that the sector includes not just colleges, but also a very large number of independent training providers (ITPs) but it is widely anticipated that the reduction in the number of schools graded as ‘outstanding’ will be reflected in the FE sector, and that far fewer FE colleges will achieve an ‘outstanding’ grade. Ofsted has produced an information video on the new inspection programme that has been posted on YouTube. In the video, Christopher Russell, a national director at Ofsted, talks about how schools that have previously been judged as ‘outstanding’ will be inspected over the next three years. The video, which may be of some relevance to colleges, can be found here.
  • More ‘themes’ will be included in Ofsted’s inspection brief: In addition to gathering evidence to advise ministers about the quality of provision in the FE sector, Ofsted’s inspection brief is being extended to include additional themes, such as:
  • The contribution colleges are making to students’ education recovery.
  • The extent to which colleges are helping to deliver the skills needs of local employers (reflecting the proposals in the Skills and Post-16 Education Bill, currently progressing through parliament and in the government’s Skills for Jobs White Paper).
  • The progress being made by colleges in helping to develop and deliver T-Levels.
  • The contribution colleges are making to the roll-out of Skills Boot Camps.

Ofsted has been accused by education unions and professional associations of failing to adequately consider the impact that Covid has had on schools and colleges. The Association for School and College Leaders (ASCL) has gone further and has called for heads of institutions to be able to halt Ofsted inspections if, for example, they have hundreds of young people and numerous key staff are absent as a result of testing positive for Covid, or as a result of being in close contact with someone else who has tested positive.


On 1 November, the British Educational Research Association (BERA) published its ‘Manifesto for Education for Environmental Sustainability’. In the manifesto, BERA says that schools and colleges should be required to include teaching about the environment and environmental issues in the curriculum and that Ofsted inspection grades should include judgements on how well schools and colleges are dealing with environmental issues and the progress senior leaders were making in achieving reductions in the carbon emissions of their own institutions. BERA did acknowledge that exam and funding pressures were limiting the capacity of schools and colleges to make environmental sustainability a key feature of their provision and called on the government to take account of this when allocating funding for education provision.


Current government policy is that exams should go ahead as normal in England next summer, albeit with adaptations to take account of the impact that Covid has already had on students who will be taking their exams next year. Because Covid infections could flare up again next year, there is a possibility that once again exams may be prevented from being held, and the Department for Education (DfE) and Ofqual have been tasked with developing contingency arrangements for awarding grades should this be the case.

Contingency plans and guidance for Vocational and Technical Qualifications (VTQs) have already been developed and were published by the DfE on 30 September, a copy of which can be found here.

Over the period from 30 September to 13 October, the DfE and Ofqual jointly consulted on contingency plans should GCSE and A-Level exams need to be cancelled. The DfE published the outcome of the consultation on 11 November and on the same date, Ofqual published guidance for schools and colleges in England for conducting tests and non-exam assessments should exams be cancelled, and for collecting the evidence required to determine teacher assessed grades (TAGs). The Ofqual guidance says that:

  • Over-assessment should be avoided. Total assessment time should be similar to the time students would normally spend taking exams, plus any time normally spent on non-exam assessments.
  • Teachers should decide how many times students should be tested, and what the balance of test and non-test-based assessment should be. A sensible approach, says Ofqual, would be to hold tests once a term. This would mean that if Covid infections flare later in the academic year, there will be some evidence available to base TAGs on.
  • Tests should be held under exam-like conditions (as far as is possible) and cover content similar to that normally expected in summer exams. Past papers or exam questions can be used where appropriate.
  • Students should be told in advance which parts of the subject content will be covered in the test. This should be done in sufficient time to allow them to revise and prepare for the test. However, they should not be told the questions in advance, nor should they be able to predict the questions that will be set in the test from the information they are provided with.
  • Students should be provided with feedback on their performance in tests, which could include marks, but they should not be allowed to repeat a test.
  • If TAGs are used, they should be based only on the content that has been taught.
  • Students should be told before each test or other assessment whether their results will be used as part of the evidence for awarding TAGs.
  • Schools and colleges should not deviate from the Ofqual guidance provided because of ‘minor disruptions’. For example, if a student was absent when a particular topic was taught, teachers should not change the content of a test to accommodate them. If there is any deviation from the Ofqual guidance, schools and colleges are required to record the reasons that made the deviation necessary.
  • Reasonable adjustments should continue to be made for students with learning difficulties and disabilities.
  • No decision has yet been made on how assessments will be quality assured, or how student appeals against grades awarded will be conducted, but the processes are thought likely to be similar to those used this year.

On 3 November, Robert Halfon, the Chair of the House of Commons Education Select committee, used the 10-minute rule (which allows a backbench MP to make a case for a new Bill in a speech lasting up to 10 minutes) to introduce a Schools and Education Settings (Essential Infrastructure and Opening During Emergencies) Bill in parliament. The Bill aims to reclassify schools as ‘essential infrastructures’, which means that they would be required to stay open, (as, for example, hospitals and food retailers are) in the event of further lockdowns. In introducing the bill, Mr Halfon said that he understood the need for lockdowns to protect the health of the public, but went on to say that before Covid, disadvantaged children were already considerably behind their better-off peers and that lockdown closures had resulted in an even wide wider attainment gap. Mr Halfon said that, if enacted, the bill would help ensure that school and college closures only occurred when absolutely necessary. To help ensure that this was the case, the bill includes a ‘triple lock’ which would require three things to happen before schools and colleges were closed. These are as follows:

  • The advice of the Children’s Commissioner for England on whether national or regional school closures were necessary and were in pupils’ and students’ best interests should be sought.
  • Any proposal to close would need to be debated and voted on in parliament.
  • If closures were approved by parliament, the Education Secretary for England would (having once again sought the advice of the Children’s Commissioner) return to parliament every three weeks to discuss the issue, after which another vote on any proposed extension of closures would be held.

The DfE has published the findings of research commissioned from the Education Policy Institute (EPI) on the extent of learning losses caused by Covid lockdowns in primary and secondary schools over the 2021 spring and summer terms. Learning loss is defined as the months of learning pupils are behind following the pandemic, compared to a typical, pre-pandemic school year. The findings take pupil characteristics into account, for example, their different socio-economic backgrounds. There is currently no comparable research available for the effect of Covid lockdowns on post-16 education provision.


On 3 November, Ofqual launched a consultation on guidance for schools, colleges and awarding organisations (AOs) on how to design and develop ‘accessible assessments’. Ofqual defines accessible assessments as those that do not disadvantage students whose background or disability may cause them to have difficulty in understanding what is being asked of them in the assessment. Ofqual gives examples of the students who may be affected, which include those who:

  • May not speak English their first language or is not the main language spoken in their homes.
  • Are newcomers to Britain and who may be unfamiliar with the cultural context of an exam question or other assessment.
  • Have learning difficulties and disabilities, such as being deaf, visually impaired, autistic or dyslexic.

Ofqual says that the guidance is intended help schools, colleges and AOs comply with their statutory obligations under the 2010 Equality Act. In the consultation, Ofqual proposes that, in designing exams and other assessments, schools, colleges and AOs should:

  • Avoid the use of contexts such as those relating to particular types of housing, family arrangements, or cultural experiences
  • Not use unnecessary negative, narrow or stereotypical representations of particular groups.
  • Not use complex language.
  • Avoid the use of colloquialisms, metaphors, idioms and sarcasm.
  • Use simple sentences.
  • Avoid the use of sources or images that may be culturally inappropriate or are not directly relevant to the assessment.
  • Place more difficult questions towards the end of an exam paper so that students are not demotivated at the start of the exam.
  • Provide exam instructions that are clear and unambiguous so that students understand what they are required to do and how tasks set should be approached and completed.
  • Provide aids (as appropriate) for students for students with learning difficulties and disabilities.

The consultation ends on 24 January next year with final guidance expected in the spring.


On 4 November the DfE published an analysis of 2021 GCSE and other key stage 4 results data. In this year TAGs, rather than exams were used to determine grades awarded. The main findings in the report include the following:

  • 30% of GCSE entries were graded at 7 and above in 2021, an increase of 2.5% on 2020 when 27.5% were graded at 7 and above, and an 8.2% increase on 2019 when the figure was 21.8%.
  • The DfE disadvantage gap index widened to 3.79 in 2021 (when TAGs were used) compared with 3.66 in 2020 (when centre-assessed grades were used) and 3.7 in 2019, which was the last year when exams were held normally.
  • Fewer pupils were entered for the English Baccalaureate (EBacc). The EBacc is comprised of GCSEs in English language and literature, maths, a modern language, geography or history and a choice either GCSE combined science, where pupils take 2 GCSEs chosen from the 3 main sciences (biology, chemistry and physics) or 3 single sciences (chosen from biology, chemistry, physics and computer science). In the past, students with higher prior attainment have been more likely to be entered for the five EBacc components, but government has said that by 2022, it wants 75% of pupils to be studying for the EBacc. However, in 2021, only 38.7% of GCSE students were entered for the EBacc, a decrease of 1.3% on 2019.
  • Because of the higher overall GCSE rates achieved in 2021, the EBacc APS (average points score – a measure of pupils’ point scores across the five components of the EBacc) increased from 4.07 to 4.45. For the same reason, the average Attainment 8 points score increased from 46.7 to 50.9.

On 4 November the DfE also published an analysis of 2021 A-Level and other 16-18 results data. As with GCSEs, in this year, TAGs, rather than exams were used to determine A-Level grades awarded. The main findings in the report include the following:

  • The average A-Level grade increased from C in 2019 to B in 2021.
  • The average University and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) points score increased from 33.77 in 2019 to 41.60 in 2021.
  • All school and college types have seen large increases in their average A level points since 2019, with FE college students achieving the largest increase of 8.8 points.
  • Both boys and girls achieved more A-Level grades at A*, A or B in 2021 than in 2019 and 2020.
  • Continuing a trend first seen in 2020, a higher proportion of girls were awarded the top A* and A grades in 2021. This, says the report, is a reversal of the gender gap in achievement at these grades in 2018 and 2019. Also, between 2019 and 2021 girls’ attainment of the A* and A grades in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) subjects increased by more than it did for boys.
  • A-Level students from disadvantaged backgrounds achieved an average result around half a grade lower than their non-disadvantaged peers in 2021. This is a similar gap to that in 2020 and 2019.

In last month’s Autumn Budget and Spending Review, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak, announced that total spending on skills and post-16 education would increase by £3.8 billion over the period to 2024/25, This is a cash increase of 42% (reducing to 26% in real terms) compared with 2019/20. However, an analysis carried out by the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) has revealed that per student spending in GFE and sixth form colleges (SFCs) will still be around 10% lower in real terms than 2012. The IfS also says that much of the extra funding for capital projects and improving 16-19 base rates had been announced previously.


Funding was made available in last month’s Spending Review for up to 100,000 T-Level students by 2024, but concerns have been raised about securing a sufficient number of 45-day (or 315 hour) industry placements that are a key component of the course. This is a situation that has been made considerably worse by Covid. Nadhim Zahawi says that civil servants at the DfE have provided him evidence that there will be enough employers offering 45-day industry placements when T-Levels are fully rolled out

Meanwhile, to help address any shortfall, the government has announced a temporarily increase in cash incentives for employers providing T-Level industry placements to £1,000, with employers now being allowed to claim this sum for a maximum of 20 students on T-Level programmes until July 2022. And the Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA) has now announced  temporary flexibilities for the first two waves of T-Levels which, says the DfE, will remain in place until July 2023. Guidance on the new flexibilities says that for students taking digital, construction and health and science T-Levels programmes:

  • Students who started their course in September 2020 can now undertake up to 40% of their placement hours remotely.
  • Students starting their T-Level course in 2021 can spend up to 25% of their placement hours ‘…not in the workplace’.
  • In both cases, the remote element must take place at either the provider’s site, a training centre or simulated working environment run by the employer and not at the student’s home.

These flexibilities are not available for students taking education and childcare T-Level programmes. This, says the ESFA, is because students on education and childcare programmes should complete their placement entirely in person to ‘…reflect the level of competence in knowledge and skills that students need to be demonstrate in the workplace, to meet the early years educator criteria’. Education and childcare programme providers should continue to plan to deliver placements of 750 hours for those students who started their T-Levels in 2021 but where they are not able to do this, students can still complete their placement requirement ‘…if they are able complete a minimum of 415 hours on placement and are able to demonstrate competence against the early years educator criteria’.


Five GCSE passes at grade 4-9 are usually required for entry to T-Level courses, with most colleges and other providers asking for these to include a minimum grade 4 pass in English and maths. Providers have always had the option of recruiting students to T-Level programmes without a minimum of a grade 4 or above pass at GCSE or equivalent Level 2 qualification in these subjects, and the DfE has actually encouraged this for some courses. At the same time, the DfE has required students to have achieved GCSE grade 4 or an equivalent Level 2 in English and maths by the end of their T-Level course.

Speaking at the Association of Colleges (AoC) Conference earlier this month, Education Secretary for England, Nadhim Zahawi, announced that the DfE has dropped this ‘exit requirement’ since some students were found to have been deterred from applying for a place on a T-Level course (particularly in practical areas, such a catering and childcare) because of the rule. Mr Zahawi added that the change will bring T-Levels in line with their academic equivalent, A-Levels, where students are able to achieve three A-Levels

without being required to achieve GCSE English and maths at grade 4 or above by the end of their course.

Technically the change means that obtaining a GCSE grade 4 or above English and maths qualification has been removed as an ‘exit requirement’ for T-Levels and has now become a ‘condition of funding’ where, if a 16-to-19-year-old does not have grade 4 or above in these subjects, they will be required to continue to study towards obtaining them during their course. The Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education, which has responsibility for T Levels, has now been told to remove the exit requirement with immediate effect for all pathways, and the ESFA says it will be providing guidance how the change will be implemented in the near future. Presumably, the DfE hopes that the rule change will increase enrolment on T-Level programmes beyond what it is at present.

While some sector leaders have welcomed the change, others have expressed concern that it has devalued the qualification. Some have said that not having Level 2 English and maths as required entry criteria for T Levels had been an error and now removing them as an exit requirement will further reduce their appeal for universities and employers, and may send the wrong message to prospective students.


In order to commence the process of rationalising and simplifying the bewilderingly large number of post-16 qualifications at Level 3 on offer in England, the government conducted a two-stage review. This led to a proposal that there should be just three post 16 qualification routes, these being A-Levels, T-Levels and apprenticeships. To facilitate this rationalisation, the government is proposing to withdraw public funding from most other post-16 options. While the move towards a simpler and more readily understandable post-16 qualifications framework has been welcomed, considerable disquiet has been expressed at the proposal to defund the majority of BTEC qualifications. A concerted campaign called Project Choice, supported by teaching unions and professional associations, representatives of schools and colleges, students and many politicians, has been conducted to try to get the government to change its mind about defunding BTEC qualifications. In response Nadhim Zahawi, the Secretary of State for Education has announced that the removal of funding for most BTECs and other applied general qualifications scheduled for 2023 will now be delayed by a year.


On 19 November, the DfE published data on Level 3 attainment in 2019/20 for young people in state-sector schools and colleges. The data reveals massive regional and local variations. For example, whereas 76% of young people in Kensington had achieved a Level 3 qualification by age 19 only 40% of young people aged 19 in Hull young had done so. And a young person in London was 31% more like to achieve a Level 3 qualification by age 19 compared to a young person in the North East. The data also shows that, across the whole of England, 40% of young people aged 19 did not achieve a Level 3 qualification.


Having already passed through, and been amended by, the House of Lords, on 15 November, the Skills and Post-16 Education Bill received its second reading in the House of Commons. The Conservatives do not have a majority in the Lords, but they do have a majority in the Commons, so many of the amendments passed in the Lords are not expected to be included in the final bill. Just 44 MPs from both government and opposition benches took part in the debate, which went on for nearly three hours. During the debate:

  • Education Secretary for England, Nadhim Zahawi, confirmed the one-year delayto the defunding of most BTECs and applied general qualifications. This was welcomed by MPs on all sides but the Labour Shadow Education Secretary for England, Kate Green, went further and called on MPs to support the Lords’ amendment for a four-year delay in defunding BTECs.
  • Mr Zahawi also confirmed that the current T-Level exit requirement for students to have achieved a GCSE grade 4 or above GCSE in English and maths (or other Level 2 equivalent) would be scrapped.
  • Robert Halfon, the Chair of the House of Commons Education Select Committee, proposed additions to the Bill, including a new Skills Tax Credit to help incentivise employers to provide training for their staff, and diverting some of the £800 million currently spent on widening access to universities towards widening access to apprenticeships for young people from disadvantaged backgrounds
  • Mr Zahawi introduced an amendment that would give Mayoral Combined Authorities a statutory role in the development of Local Skills Improvement Plans (LSIPs). This had been previously proposed in the House of Lords and had received cross-party support.
  • Alex Burghart, the new Skills Minister for England, was questioned by MPs on why the government thought that only local Chambers of Commerce were suitable to be the designated employer representative bodies leading on LSIPs.
  • Toby Perkins, the Labour Shadow Skills Minister for England, along with Conservative MP Peter Aldous and Liberal Democrat MP Munira Wilson proposed that the government should support the Lords amendment that would allow Universal Credit claimants more access to training without losing benefits.

The Bill will now enter the committee stage. This means that a committee of MPs will be formed to debate each clause of the bill in detail and make decisions on the amendments proposed by MPs during the second reading. The committee stage is expected to begin at the end of this month.


Following the publication of the findings of a consultation held in 2019 that was delayed due to Covid, the previous entry level and Level 1 Digital Functional Skills Qualification (DFSQ) has been discontinued, and earlier this month a new entry-level and Level 1 DFSQ has been launched. The course content and specification for the new qualification can be found here.

More than 100,000 people studied for the previous DFSQ each year, with many of these having special educational needs and disabilities (SEND), and an equalities impact assessment of the new DFSQ says that the subject content might ask learners with SEND to demonstrate a skill they would never be able to perform. This could place them at a disadvantage in obtaining the qualification and place AOs and course providers potentially in contravention of the legal requirement to make reasonable adjustments under the 2010 Equality Act. In response to this, a DfE spokesperson has said that learners with SEND will not prevented from taking the new DFSQ, because support is available through the Adult Education Budget (AEB) to meet the cost of putting in place the reasonable adjustments needed for individuals with an identified learning difficulty or disability.


Following inspections of 16 local authorities since September, Ofsted says that support for young people with SEND in most of them is generally ‘weak’. Ofsted also says that young people are ‘…not getting the support they need as they transition between services’, with colleges often being left to ‘…pick up the pieces’ for many of those with SEND aged 16 and over.

Learners with SEND are able to stay in school until age 19, but many leave earlier and go on to a college. However, not all of them will have an education, health and care plan (EHCP), which sets out their specific support needs, and even if they do, their EHCP is often out of date. Local authorities have also been accused of providing inadequate advice and guidance for families on post-16 options, and not engaging in a timely manner once a SEND learner leaves school to go on to college. Added to this, it seems that just 1% of the non-ringfenced capital grants for SEND provision that have been allocated to local authorities by the DfE over the past three years went to FE providers.

Although local authorities were allocated an additional £2.6 billion for SEND pupils in schools in last month’s Budget and Spending Review, FE colleges and other post-16 providers received nothing for theirs.


On 9 November, the DfE announced the names of the 39 general GFEs, SFCs, 16-19 academies and university technical Colleges (UTCs) that submitted successful bids and will share £83 million from the Post-16 Capacity Fund.  The money will be used to build classrooms, science laboratories and other facilities to accommodate the demographic growth in the number of 16-19-year-olds across England. Independent Training Providers (ITPs) were excluded from applying for cash from the fund. The DfE has said that in the future, institutions that are currently eligible will also be able to bid for cash from the fund for projects that will help the government to reach its target of zero net carbon emissions by 2050.


The Kickstart Scheme, which was launched last year as part of the government’s Plan for Jobs, is intended to provide six-month job placements for young people aged 16-24 who are currently claiming Universal Credit and are at risk of long-term unemployment. On 16 November, the Minister of State for Work and Pensions, Theresa Coffey, announced that since its inception more than 100,000 young people had participated in job placements provided by employers through the scheme.


The Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education (IfATE) has published its strategic plan setting out its priorities for the period to 2024. The plan is entitled ‘Employer Centred – Future Facing’, the main contents of which include the following:

  • Delivering for employers:IfATE says it is ‘…unashamedly employer led because only they know what training is really needed to fill the nation’s skills gaps and support learners into long and successful careers’. IfATE says that it will:
    • Implement forward-looking and employer-led strategic plans for each of the 15 occupational routes, covering the full spectrum of sectors and industries across the economy.
    • Review how all larger and smaller employers support IfATE’s work, capitalising on digital solutions to streamline their involvement and maximise insights.
    • Create authoritative knowledge about future skills needs, for example supporting digital innovations and the drive to net zero carbon emissions.
    • Make it far easier for learners from all backgrounds to progress from entry level up to degree level training, supporting the economy’s broad skills needs.
  • Building a more integrated skills system: IfATE says it will ‘…create a single technical education system that drives up quality and meets the skills needs of all the nation’s employers and learners’, and will:
    • Support the Skills and Post-16 Education Bill into law. If approved, this will grant new functions to IfATE, including approval of most post-16 qualifications. Everything will follow the same employer-defined training requirements set out in our occupational standards.
    • Chart all technical education onto the same occupational maps which must be accessible and easy to use for employers, learners, careers advisors, awarding organisations, educators and others.
    • Ensure that apprenticeships and other technical qualifications are sufficiently adaptable to support the widest possible uptake and use, for instance to deliver regional and social agendas.
  • Securing continuous improvement: IfATE says it is ‘…always prepared to listen and learn and can adapt and deliver quickly, through launching T-Levels and providing over 130 flexibilities that supported apprenticeships through the Covid pandemic’. IfATE says it will build on this by:
    • Introducing a long-term assurance model that supports the delivery of improved quality by all.
    • Delivering a directory of industry experts to secure the employers’ voice in the external quality assurance of assessments.
    • Promoting a continuous improvement philosophy and new approaches to ensure all of IfATE’s customers have good experiences with the Institute.


Since April 2021, the government’s Lifetime Skills Guarantee, has meant that any adult aged 19 and over who does not already have a Level 3 qualification (or higher) has been allowed to take a Level 3 ‘high value’ (to employers) course fully funded by through the National Skills Fund. Speaking at the AoC Conference earlier this month, the Education Secretary for England, Nadhim Zahawi announced that from next April, as part of a trial in the first instance, any adult in England who earns an annual salary below the national living wage and who already has a Level 3 qualification will also be able take a fully funded ‘high value’ Level 3 course if they need to upskill because their current skills are obsolete or reskill because they are changing careers. A spokesperson for the DfE said that further details on this will be made available in the near future.


In 2015, around 27% of apprenticeships were delivered by colleges. By 2021 this had risen to 30%. In a speech to the recent AoC conference which was reminiscent of that given six years ago by the then Skills Minister Nick Boles, Mr Zahawi called on colleges to deliver more apprenticeships and to help ‘…ensure far closer alignment between colleges and employers right across our skills system’.

A copy of Mr Zahawi’s speech can be found here.


At a recent meeting of the House of Commons Education Select Committee (which you can watch on Parliament TV here), Michelle Donelan, the Minister for FE and HE in England answered questions from Committee members on whether financial incentives should be provided to universities to encourage them to offer more degree (Level 6 and 7) apprenticeships. Ms Donelan said she was ‘…looking at this’, because although degree apprenticeships are currently available in 94 universities, she wanted every university to be delivering degree apprenticeships. She told members that HE representatives had welcomed the possibility of receiving financial incentives to run apprenticeships (no surprises there then) but that many universities were put off by the ‘excessive’ regulatory burden involved in applying to be listed on Register of Apprenticeship training Providers (RoATP) and meeting the regulatory requirements of the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education and Ofsted (no surprises there either).

In April this year, Ofsted assumed responsibility for inspecting Level 6 and 7 apprenticeships which had previously been carried out by the Office for Students (OfS), and in July IfATE launched a consultation on how degree apprenticeships should be created, run and accredited, neither of which seems to have been well received by an HE sector used to less intervention and significantly more regulatory autonomy.


Earlier this month, the Centre for Policy Studies (CPS) published a report entitled ‘The Value of University’. The report looks at the economic returns for individuals, and for the economy in general from a range of university courses, and finds huge discrepancies in the amount of taxpayer money being spent on them. It also finds that they do not always improve the lifetime earnings of the students taking them. The main conclusion given in the report is that, while the university sector in England has expanded hugely in recent decades, the push to increase student numbers has been prioritised at the expense of quality of courses and potential employment outcomes. Recommendations made in the report include proposals to change the way fees are paid to help ensure that those courses that benefit the economy and provide higher returns for students receive more public investment than those that do not. The problems with the current system identified in the report include the following:

  • University student numbers have increased fivefold in recent years with more than half of young people currently aged between 19 and 24 now attending (or have attended) university, and more than a third of HE students now graduate with a first-class honours degree, with around 80% graduating with either a first or an upper-second class honours degree.
  • On the surface it seems that British universities have managed to achieve an impressive increase in student numbers with an equally impressive improvement in the quality of their course provision. But the credibility of this, says the report, is undermined by the fact that university students in England have ‘…some of the lowest literacy and numeracy rates in the developed world’, that they are often ‘…woefully underprepared for the world of work’, and leave university with an average debt of £45,000, the highest in the world.
  • These inconsistencies arise because the current system incentivises universities to keep increasing student numbers, as they will receive more government funding in the form of student loans. And rather than the improvements in the quality claimed, says the report, the drive to increase student numbers has led to a proliferation of poor-quality courses, with students being encouraged to take out loans to pay for these. This, in turn, leads to significant levels of student debt that often stays with them throughout their working life, leaving the taxpayer to eventually have to pay off more than half of this.
  • Not only does the government make an overall loss on financing the degrees of over half of all graduates, the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IfS) estimates that approximately 20% of current undergraduates will themselves be poorer as a result of going to university, not least because more than a third of graduates are currently employed in non-graduate jobs, a rate that has consistently risen over the last decade. These losses are concentrated amongst certain degree subjects, and sometimes differ according to gender of the student. The report gives (amongst others) creative arts as an example, and says that studying the subject has zero impact on earnings for the average female graduate over her lifetime, whilst the average male graduate earns on average £94,000 less than they otherwise would have.

The report goes on to say that ‘…by any conceivable metric’, England has too many universities offering too many courses that are of too little value to their students or to society’. The report also draws attention to the ‘…misalignment between risk and reward, because when a university recruits a student, it receives a tuition fee, regardless of whether the student later repays the loan’,  This means that, ‘…as far as the university is concerned, there is only an upside in expansion, so long as the fee covers the cost of provision, while all of the downside risk is borne by the taxpayer’.

The report then goes on to offer a solution, which involves radical changes to way in which HE in England is funded and proposes that:

  • Instead of the government handing loans to the student through the Student Loans Company (SLC), the government should pay the loans directly to the university, which would then be responsible for lending to their students. Because the university is the lender, rather than the government, at the end of their studies, graduates would repay the universities, which in turn would repay the government. It would also mean that it would be the universities that would take on any financial responsibility that arises from any default in student loan repayments, rather than the taxpayer.
  • If universities became responsible for their own loan portfolios, this reversal of risk could be expected to make them think much more carefully about continuing courses which are producing graduates in areas where they are not needed, and offering students courses that result in poor financial returns. They may well also be more incentivised to focus on delivering courses that are good value for money for students, and produce graduates in areas where they are most needed.
  • The CPS also estimates such the change could save the Treasury up to £7 billion a year without increasing the amount of debt that students have to repay. These savings could then be used to invest in skills and technical education, thereby offering school-leavers a productive alternative to university, bursaries to fund increased participation in socially and economically valuable courses, and to provide additional investment in research and development to help improve the UK’s position as a global leader in high-end innovation.

On 4 November, the Office for Students (OfS) published its latest ‘Insight’ research paper called ‘Place matters: Inequality, unemployment and the role of higher education’. The research perhaps unsurprisingly concludes that where you grow up has a significant impact on whether, and where, you go to university, and your chances of obtaining a highly skilled and highly paid job afterwards. The research says that while most highly paid and highly skilled jobs tend to be clustered in and around London and the South East, the ex-industrial areas in the North and Midlands, and in coastal towns, have consistently lower levels of HE participation, lower paid graduates and fewer graduates in highly skilled jobs (see here). This, says the research, is directly linked to lower levels of mobility for young people in these areas, compounded by other factors, such as poverty and ethnicity. The research also shows that students who do not move for study are far more likely to have been eligible for free school meals (no real surprises here then, either). The report says that in 2020:

  • The north of England had the lowest proportion of graduates in high skilled and well-paid employment. There were also many coastal regions with similar employment patterns.
  • London has the highest proportion of graduates in high skilled, well-paid jobs.
  • 43% of young people from English state schools had entered higher education by the age of 19. The highest HE entry rate at 55% was in London and the lowest, at 37%, was in the South West.
  • Intra-regional disparities in HE participation were also substantial. In the South West, for example, 78% of young people in Westbury Park in Bristol entered HE, whilst in Hartcliffe in the south of Bristol, just six miles away, this fell to just 9%.

UCAS has published data on the numbers applying to the most selective courses and universities next year by the 15 October 2021 application deadline. The 15 October deadline usually accounts for approximately 10% of the total number of applicants in a UCAS ‘cycle’, with the UCAS ‘equal consideration’ deadline for all other courses and HE institutions being 26 January 2022. The 15 October deadline data shows that there were:

  • 77,810 applicants of all ages and domiciles, an increase of 1% on last year.
  • 39,920 applicants were aged 18, an increase 3% on last year.
  • 3,030 of applicants were from the most disadvantaged group (POLAR quintile 1, which is the bottom 20% of postcodes where the fewest young people participate in HE), an increase 8% on last year.
  • 17,570 of applicants were from the most advantaged students groups (POLAR quintile 5, which is the top 20% of postcodes, where the highest number of young people participate in higher HE), an increase of 1% on last year.
  • 29,710 applicants for places on medicine courses, an increase of 4% on last year.
  • 850 applicants from the Republic of Ireland (RoI), an increase of 15% on last year. (Unlike students from other EU countries, students from the RoI students have been able to continue to access the same tuition and subsistence loan support as UK students which, in itself, varies depending on which UK country they have applied to study in).
  • 4,370 applicants from other EU countries (who are no longer able to continue to access the same tuition and subsistence loan support as UK students), a decrease of 16% on last year.
  • 17,460 international applicants from outside EU. This number is the same as last year (following a significant rise of 20% the previous year).
  • 4,570 were from China, an increase of 4% on last year (following a 31% increase the previous year).

A party of sixth form college students were on an A-Level geography field trip in North Wales. They were travelling in a college minibus with their lecturers and had just crossed over the Menai Bridge onto the island of Anglesey. The lecturers thought that the students might find it amusing if they stopped for lunch in Llanfair­pwllgwyngyll­gogery­chwyrn­drobwll­llan­tysilio­gogo­goch, so they did. Having found a restaurant, the students sat down at the tables. One of the lecturers went up to the counter and asked the woman behind it if she spoke Welsh. ‘Yes,’ she replied, ‘most of us do who live here on Anglesey’. ‘Great!’ said the lecturer, ‘Before we order, would you mind saying for our students the name of the place we are in? And could you please pronounce the syllables very slowly?’. ‘Of course,’ she replied, ‘we get asked to do that a lot’, and turning to the students said, ‘You are in ‘Burrr…gurrr…King’.

Alan Birks – November 2021

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