Ian Pretty


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How the UK's collective bias towards university is risking our future

By 2030, research shows that about 20% of the current UK labour market won’t have the required skills, and that this will be felt most acutely across digital and people skills. The impending skills shortage risks stifling economic growth across the UK, limiting employment opportunities and earnings, and negatively impacting overall performance, productivity, and prosperity.

One of the Government’s key initiatives to tackle this head on is its ‘levelling up’ agenda and, which aims to give people and communities that feel they have been left behind, a chance to catch up. At Collab Group, we hold a growing concern that this key government initiative could be derailed by a collective bias towards universities.

At Collab Group, we believe further education colleges are a potent agency of the levelling up agenda. They bring talent and creativity, public and private investment, and employment opportunities to more areas across the UK – including areas of deprivation. And our research backs this up, showing that Collab Group member colleges have been market leaders in delivering level 4/5 courses and qualifications, in terms of market share, for some time; that further education colleges recruit a higher proportion of level 4/5 students from deprived areas than universities, widening participation; further education colleges are usually cheaper than universities; further education colleges tend to enjoy smaller class sizes, intensifying the learning experience; and that there is a strong link between the subjects taught at further education colleges and employment opportunities.

Additionally, a recent YouGov poll revealed that 40 per cent of adults surveyed believed further education should be prioritised for levelling up, compared to only 15 per cent who felt higher education should be a top-three priority for this agenda. So, how can we ‘move the needle’ and more successfully demonstrate the important role further education colleges can play as key drivers of levelling up?

At Collab Group, we believe the main way this issue could be addressed is by an increased and sustained promotion of level 4/5 courses, how these differ from level 6 undergraduate degrees, and how colleges are best placed to deliver them. In addition, careers advice and guidance about level L4/5 qualifications, particularly in schools, fee caps for level 4/5 courses and a sustainable alternative equivalent to student loans.

At Collab Group, we believe these key recommendations will help address our bias towards university, positively promote and increase the number of people studying at level 4/5 at further education colleges, and – ultimately – ensure we have multi-skilled people who can be successful in the future world of work.

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