Employers need a workforce with the right skills to adapt to major and rapid socio-economic change. An ageing workforce, technological advancement, climate change, societal inequality and the consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic are just some of the UK’s current challenges. Higher and further education are equally fundamental in providing the skills that are needed to address these issues.

Last week the Government launched a restructuring regime to support universities in England who are at risk of market exit due to the challenges of COVID-19. The regime is an important commitment by the Government to protect students, as well as universities’ invaluable contribution to research and innovation and their critical role in regional and local economies.

In the details of the regime there is also a clear message to universities. In a foreword, the  Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson, states “it is probable that the sector in 2030 will not look the same as it does now”. Indeed,  with a Comprehensive Spending Review around the corner and the anticipated response to the Augar Review of Post-18 education, the operating environment for universities looks set to change. However, change should not just happen for change’s sake.  Employers’ voices and perspectives must be heard in debates regarding changes to the education system.

In recent weeks, there has been a focus on the important role that further education providers play in our education system. In a speech delivered earlier in the month, Gavin Williamson suggested that more young people should enter further education (FE). The Minister’s speech suggests that HE providers, when appropriate, should consider delivering higher technical education or apprenticeships alongside their graduate and post/graduate courses. These strategies will likely result in more extensive partnerships between HE and FE with alignment of courses and collaboration with the local economy. There is reference to this in the restructuring scheme too, which states that universities should “examine whether any provision could be more effectively offered at Level 4 and 5, either at the institution or at a local FE college”.

FE has struggled financially for a long time, and there is sometimes a fear that FE and HE will be played against each other. The financial support that comes with Williamson’s new FE plan is a chance to establish a system of high-quality courses to provide the skills to re-build the post-Covid economy. However, with an increased emphasis on funding and a focus on the contributions of FE to the economy, it is critical to avoid overlooking the important role that HE is already playing, often in collaboration with FE, in providing the skills that employers need.

FE and HE have equally important but different functions in boosting young people’s employability prospects. The CBI/Pearson Education and Skills Survey report in 2019 showed that employer demand for university graduates is strong. 85 per cent of businesses recruiting graduates planned on continuing or increasing their graduate intake. Further findings from the report showed that a university degree boosts employability; 87 percent of graduates and postgraduates were in employment compared with 71 percent of non-graduates.

Many HE and FE providers already work together closely. These collaborations are critical in identifying and delivering solutions to support local and regional skills needs. They are also a great way to ensure that there is a coherent pathway for students who want to continue studying to obtain a degree after first entering FE studies.

To name just a few examples:

  • Bangor University is engaging in a partnership with the largest FE provider in Wales, Grŵp Llandrillo Menai, enabling closer working with employers on regional economic development.
  • Middlesex University is pursuing a strategic partnership with Capital City College Group aligning apprenticeships to offer seamless transitions between different levels.
  • University of Hertfordshire has partnered with several colleges to form the Hertfordshire Higher Education Consortium.

This is especially valuable for those coming from non-traditional university backgrounds and a good way for universities to work on widening participation. Collaborations between FE and HE can also help to unlock new partnerships with businesses for both parties. Traditionally HE tends to collaborate with businesses around R&D whereas colleges are more likely to work locally with employers to deliver education and training. Collaborating with each other, they have the opportunity to expand their business partnerships and collaborations.

Meeting the needs of the economy and enhancing the skills of young people can be delivered through both HE and FE.  Sufficient funding that meets the needs of both FE and HE providers is essential. Additionally, policy initiatives need to ensure that the different and valuable qualities that HE and FE bring to the table are appreciated, utilised, and developed. Continued collaboration between FE and HE providers  leads to enhanced opportunities for young people to explore career pathways while also ensuring that the UK produces a workforce with the skills vital for meeting the challenges of the future.