The government has sought to make reforming adult education and skills policy a key priority, with the recent White Paper seeking to communicate the government’s strategy. However, many key details are missing or left to further consultation. Rather than just another statement of good intentions, what is needed is a serious attempt to improve adult education and skills.

This is the main conclusion of a new briefing note ‘Big changes ahead for adult education funding? Definitely maybe’ by researchers at the Institute for Fiscal Studies, published today, and funded by the Nuffield Foundation.

The government’s January 2021 White Paper ‘Skills for jobs: lifelong learning for opportunity and growth’ contains a series of proposals for reforming post-18 education and skills policy in England. The analysis from IFS focuses on reforms to post-18 funding, finding that:

  • Spending and learner numbers have fallen substantially. Total public spending on adult education and apprenticeships has fallen by one-third over the last decade, with spending on traditional adult education falling by 50% in real terms. Learner numbers have fallen by more than one-third since 2010.
  • There is a distinct lack of detail about what the key spending commitment – the National Skills Fund – will mean in practice. The National Skills Fund seems to commit to spend an extra £2.5 billion on adult skills over the parliament (or the equivalent of about an extra £625 million per year for four years), which would reverse about one-third of the cuts to adult education spending seen over the 2010s. However, beyond 2021–22, there is a lack of detail on what the National Skills Fund will cover or how it will be spent.
  • The government has restored the entitlement to free A-level-equivalent or Level 3 courses for adults without qualifications at this level. However, this is restricted to courses in ‘high-priority’ areas, which excludes areas such as hospitality, tourism and media.
  • The White Paper suggests changing the adult education funding system, but sets out few details and commits only to a consultation. Reform is needed: the current system is overly-complex, is too focused on the short term and provides perverse incentives just to get numbers up.
  • The White Paper proposes a Lifelong Loan Entitlement. This would give everyone access to funding for the equivalent of four years of post-18 education and sensibly remove arbitrary distinctions between further education and higher education courses.
  • There are, however, a number of important details left to be worked out. Courses that are classed as ‘approved higher technical qualifications’ will become eligible for extra funding, but it is not clear how this will be determined and what will happen to other courses. This will have a major bearing on the effects and cost.
  • Equivalent or lower qualification (ELQ) funding rules currently prevent adults from receiving public funding for qualifications at the same or lower levels to those they already possess. Relaxing these rules would enable more retraining, and the government-commissioned Augar Review of post-18 education proposed scrapping them entirely. But despite this being an area where it is time for action rather than words, the government has not committed to this – just saying it will consult further at some point.

Imran Tahir, Research Economist at IFS and a co-author, said:

“There is a strong case for reforming further and adult education funding. Spending and learner numbers have fallen substantially over the last decade. Economic and technological changes are likely to increase demand for new skills and retraining. Yet the present system of support is horrendously complicated, creates arbitrary distinctions between further and higher education courses, and actually discourages flexibility and retraining.”

Ben Waltmann, Senior Research Economist and another co-author, said:

“The recent White Paper contains many good ideas – mostly taken from the Augar Review – but is short on specifics and actual commitments. The government should have set out a clear sense of direction, but instead has kicked the can down the road, with most substantive decisions delayed awaiting further consultations.”

Josh Hillman, Director of Education at the Nuffield Foundation, said:

“The economic downturn following the COVID-19 pandemic is likely to increase demand for post-18 education and training, and to put a premium on the qualifications that can be acquired. This is likely to highlight flaws in the existing system. For adults from a wide range of backgrounds to be able to gain the skills required by potential employers, it is more important than ever that the government ensures that the further education system is adequately funded and fit for purpose.”